Everything to Know About Gum Cancer

Medically Reviewed By Christine Frank, DDS
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Gum cancer can cause sores and thickening of the gums. Doctors can treat gum cancer with chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy. Each year, about 54,000 people in the United States receive a diagnosis of some type of oral cancer. In general, oral cancers are more common in males than females, and they typically occur after the age of 40 years.

You can reduce your risk of gum cancer by avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.

This article provides an overview of what gum cancer is before detailing the symptoms, risk factors, and outlook. It also offers tips on how to prevent gum cancer.

What is gum cancer?

child brushing fathers teeth
Tanya Yatsenko/Stocksy United

Gum cancers are a form of oral cancer. Most gum cancers form right on the gum surface and are a type of skin cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma.

They may start out looking like a bump or a sore that does not heal. The sore may be red or white and look like a thickening of the gum. Teeth near the sore may become loose, or dentures may not fit well.

Alcohol consumption and tobacco use are the biggest risk factors for gum cancers and other types of oral cancer.

Early stage gum cancers are often treatable with surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. After surgery to remove the cancer, reconstructive surgery can help restore structures that surgeons have removed or altered. Also, rehabilitation can help you relearn how to eat, swallow, or talk, if needed.

Gum cancer can be more easily treatable if a doctor detects it early, as it can spread quickly. Seek prompt medical care if you develop sores or lumps on your gums or you notice loosening of your teeth or changes in the way your dentures fit.

Learn more about oral cancers here.

What are the symptoms of gum cancer?

Gum cancers may start out looking like a bump or a sore that does not heal. The sore may be red or white, and it may look like a thickening of the gum. It might also bleed.

Teeth near the sore may become loose, or you may find that your dentures do not fit well.

Other symptoms of gum cancer can include:

  • a lump that does not go away
  • a non-healing sore — which may be white, pale, red, dark, or otherwise discolored — that does not heal within 14 days
  • bleeding gums
  • cracking of the gums
  • difficulty eating
  • loosening of the teeth or ill-fitting dentures
  • pain
  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • a thickened area of the gums
  • unexplained weight loss

Learn how doctors diagnose oral cancer here.

What are the risk factors for gum cancer?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing gum cancer. Not all people with risk factors will get gum cancer, however.

Risk factors for gum cancer include:

  • being over 40 years old
  • consuming a lot of alcohol
  • having chronic irritation of the mouth
  • following a diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • having an HPV infection
  • being male
  • having poor oral hygiene
  • smoking or using other tobacco products

Reducing your risk of gum cancer

You may be able to lower your risk of gum cancer by:

  • eating plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • observing good oral care
  • quitting tobacco products, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco
  • reducing your alcohol consumption
  • visiting your dentist regularly

What is the outlook for gum cancer?

For all types of oral cancer, Cancer Research UK gives the following outlook statistics:

Years after diagnosisPercentage of people still alive
180%
555%
1045%

These percentages relate to the number of people in the cited studies who were still alive at different points in time following diagnosis.

How do doctors treat gum cancer?

The goal of gum cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or bring about a complete remission of the condition. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the condition in the body. However, even with remission, cancer may recur or relapse later.

Common treatments for gum cancer

Some common treatments for gum cancer include:

Other treatments for gum cancer

There are other therapies that may help with your general health and any side effects of cancer treatment. These include:

  • antinausea medications if nausea occurs
  • blood cell growth factors to increase the number of white blood cells if levels of these get too low
  • blood transfusions to temporarily replace blood components (such as red blood cells) that have dropped to low levels
  • dietary counseling to help maintain strength and a good nutritional status
  • occupational therapy and physical therapy to help with eating, swallowing, or talking problems
  • pain medications to increase comfort
  • reconstructive surgery to restore structures that surgeons have removed or altered

Palliative care

In cases where gum cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the condition. Instead, doctors will focus on keeping a person comfortable and maximizing their quality of life.

Palliative care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support. It also provides useful services to support the person’s family and loved ones.

Learn more about palliative care with cancer here.

What are the potential complications of gum cancer?

Complications of untreated gum cancer can be serious. Some can even be life threatening. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you.

Some possible complications of gum cancer include:

  • adverse effects of anticancer treatments
  • a decreased ability to eat, drink, or talk
  • lost teeth
  • recurring cancer after treatment
  • the spread of cancer into nearby or farther-away body parts, including the lymph nodes
  • emotional challenges

Visit our mental health and behavior hub here.

Gum cancer prevention

Cancers of the mouth are some of the most preventable types of cancer. To prevent gum cancer, follow these tips:

  • Stay away from tobacco products.
  • Visit your dentist for regular checkups.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet that contains lots of fruits and vegetables.

If you have dentures, also take the following steps to help reduce your risk of gum cancer:

  • Remove your dentures when you sleep.
  • Clean your dentures once per day.
  • Bring your dentures to your dentist for regular evaluations.

Summary

Gum cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the mouth. It can cause sores, lumps, thickened gums, and bleeding.

There are many treatment options for gum cancer, including surgery and chemotherapy.

You can reduce your risk of gum cancer by having regular checkups with your dentist, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, and staying away from tobacco products.

The outlook for gum cancer is better with an early diagnosis and prompt treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Christine Frank, DDS
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 11
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.