What Does Oral Cancer Look Like?

Tobacco use is a significant risk factor for oral cancer and other dental ailments like leukoplakia. The toxins in smokeless tobacco and inhaled cigarette smoke can create an unhealthy environment in the mouth.

Oral diseases come in many shapes and sizes, including oral cancer, gum disease, increased tooth decay and periodontal bone loss. This gallery provides a helpful photographic resource for identifying a wide variety of these diseases.

Mouth Cancer Cells

Mouth cancer cells, SEM
Mouth Cancer Cells. Steve Gschmissne/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Mouth cancer cells. Colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of squamous cell carcinoma (cancer) cells from a human mouth. The many blebs (lumps) and microvilli (small projections) on the cells' surface are typical of cancer cells. Squamous cells are a type of epithelial cell that line body cavities, such as the mouth. Magnification: x2200 when printed 10 centimetres wide.

Tongue Cancer Cells

squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue
Gary DeLong/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

This image is of squamous cell cancer of the tongue that has been magnified 400 times. 

Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that line the surface of the tongue. 

Cancer of the tongue is often associated with tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption.

Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are expected to affect approximately 48,330 people in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society.  Of that number, 9570 are expected to lose their lives to the disease.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

mouth cancer
Public Domain Image

This image shows squamous cell cancer on the patient's gums above the front teeth.

Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers can affect the tongue, gums, inside of the mouth and throat. The oropharynx includes the back one-third of the tongue, the area of the throat (side and back walls) behind the tongue, and the soft palate.


gum damage
Courtesy of National Cancer Institute

Smokeless tobacco can cause oral cancer, gum disease, increased tooth decay and periodontal bone loss. It may also lead to an increased risk of tumors of the upper digestive tract.

People sometimes think that smokeless tobacco products are a healthier, or safer way to use tobacco, but they carry their own serious set of risks.

There is no safe form of tobacco.



Publick Domain Image

This image shows a patient with leukoplakia on the side of his tongue.

Leukoplakia is a plaque that can form on the inside of the mouth. Common sites are the tongue, bottom of the mouth, underside of the tongue, insides of the cheeks and the gums.

It is not known exactly what causes leukoplakia, but tobacco use, both smoking and smokeless tobacco, are thought to play a role.

Leukoplakia is usually a benign condition, but patches sometimes test positive for dysplasia, a precancerous condition of cells. Certain sites in the mouth seem to be more prone to this, including the floor of the mouth and ventral (underside) tongue area.

Diagnosed with Oral Cancer - Marlene's Story


Most smokers and smokeless tobacco users have worried at one time or another about the risk of oral cancer that is related to tobacco use. 

Marlene was diagnosed with throat cancer following a sore throat that wouldn't go away.  Her story is sobering and a good wake up call for the reality of where smoking can lead us. It's inspirational as well; she now "speaks" to school kids about the enormous risks that come with tobacco use.

If you're still smoking, use Marlene's story as a motivational tool to stop putting off getting started with smoking cessation.

Quit smoking now.

The Risks Aren't Worth It

As much as we all know that smoking and smokeless tobacco use carry numerous health risks, it's easy to put off quitting because those risks usually take years to materialize. We allow smoker's denial to convince us that we can quit later, and we cross our fingers that smoking-related disease will pass us by. The odds are not in a smoker's favor though, with 480,000 lives lost every year just in the United States alone. Worldwide, that number climbs to about six million lives lost, 30 percent of them being cancer deaths related to tobacco. If you're still smoking, don't be lulled into complacency. Quit now and don't look back.