oral cancer in brazil still presents high levels of incidence and mortality bearing different traits throughout the national territory. in most of the cases the diagnosis is late; however there is a great possibility for cure when treated early on. aim: to assess factors associated with the late diagnosis of oral cancer in the state of alagoas. material and methods: a prospective cross-sectional study was carried out in 74 patients, all of them diagnosed with oral squamous cell carcinoma in a hospital of alagoas, between july of 2007 and september of 2008. a semi-structured interview was given, obtaining socio-demographic data, the type of professional help sought, symptom onset, referrals and tumor clinical stage at the moment of diagnosis. results: according to the results obtained in this study, the patients usually sought professional medical help, rather than dental help when a lesion in the mouth appeared, being always referred to a specialist by the dentist, in advanced stages of the disease. conclusions: this study suggests the need for continued education programs for the population and professionals aiming at the early identification of symptoms of the illness; however needing further studies.