What is oral cancer?
Oral cancer is a persistent growth or sore in and around the mouth. Lips, cheeks, tongue, sinuses, throat, floor, and roof of the mouth are all affected. Cancer can be fatal if not detected and treated early. The dentist performs oral screening as part of routine dental exams.
How does oral cancer develop?
Oral cancer begins in the mouth and progresses in stages. Doctors discover oral cancer when cancer cells or tumors spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. Because the cancer is small and has not spread to the lymph nodes, the first stage is easily treatable. The tumor grows larger and spreads to the lymph nodes in stages two and three of oral cancer.
In stage four, the cancer tumor has spread to the lymph nodes and surrounding organs. This disease spreads quickly, especially among people over 50 who consume tobacco or alcohol. Oral cancer progresses rigorously from stage one to stage four in about five years. As a result, it is critical to detect it early, when there is a better chance of a cure.
The most commonly affected areas of oral cancer are the lips and tongue. It could also happen on the:
- The lining of the cheeks
- The mouth’s floor
- Gums (gingiva) are the roof of the mouth (palate)
The majority of oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers have the propensity to spread quickly.
Most cases of oral cancer align with smoking and other tobacco use. Heavy alcohol consumption also raises the risk of oral cancer.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection (the same virus that causes genital warts) is responsible for a more significant number of oral cancers than previously thought. One type of HPV, HPV-16, is much more commonly linked to nearly all oral cancers.
Other factors that, in fact, may increase your chances of getting oral cancer include:
- Long-term (chronic) rubbing, such as that caused by rough teeth, dentures, or fillings
- Taking medications that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants)
- Inadequate dental and oral hygiene
Some oral cancers start with a white plaque (leukoplakia) or a mouth ulcer.
Men are, in fact, twice as likely as women to develop oral cancer. It is more common in men over the age of 40.
Oral cancer can manifest as a lump or ulcer in the mouth, which could be:
- A deep, hard-edged tissue crack
- Discolored, pale, or dark red
- On the tongue, lip, or other mouth areas
- Painless initially, followed by a burning sensation or pain as the tumor progresses.
Other symptoms could include:
- Chewing issues
- Bleeding mouth ulcers
- Swallowing discomfort
- Difficulties with speech
- Difficulties with swallowing
- Neck lymph nodes that are swollen
- Tongue issues
- Loss of weight
- Opening the mouth is difficult.
- Teeth numbness and loosening
- Bad breath
Examinations and Tests
Your doctor or dentist will start by examining your mouth. The examination may reveal the following:
- A sore on the lip, tongue, gums, cheeks, or other mouth areas
- A wound or bleeding
The sore or ulcer will be biopsied. This tissue will be tested for HPV as well.
Your doctor may perform CT, MRI, and PET scans to determine if cancer has spread.
If the tumor is small enough, surgery to remove it is recommended.
More extensive surgery is performed if the tumor has spread to other tissues or nearby lymph nodes. The amount of tissue and lymph nodes removed is determined by how far the cancer has spread.
For larger tumors, surgery may be combined with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Supportive treatments may be required depending on the type of treatment you require:
- Therapy for speech.
- Therapy to aid in chewing and swallowing.
- Learning to consume enough protein and calories to maintain your weight. Inquire with your doctor about liquid food supplements that may be beneficial.
- Assist with dry mouth.
Joining a cancer support group can help you cope with the stress of your illness. Sharing with others who share your experiences and problems can make you feel less alone.
One-half of people with oral cancer will survive for over five years after being diagnosed and treated. The cure rate is nearly 90% if the cancer is detected early before it has spread to other tissues. When oral cancer is detected, it has spread in more than half of the cases. The majority of them have spread to the throat or neck.
Cancers that test positive for HPV may, however, have a better prognosis, but this is not proven. Those who have smoked for less than ten years may also fare better.
People who require higher doses of radiation in addition to chemotherapy are more likely to have severe swallowing problems.
If an individual does not stop tobacco or alcohol use, oral cancers can reoccur.
Oral cancer complications may include:
- Radiation therapy complications include dry mouth and difficulty swallowing.
- Face, head, and neck disfigurement following surgery
- Other cancer spread (metastasis)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
When the dentist performs regular cleaning and examination, oral cancer may be discovered.
If you have a sore in your mouth or lip or a lump in your neck that does not go away after a month, contact your provider. Early detection and treatment of oral cancer improve survival rates significantly.
Things that help prevent oral cancer:
- Avoiding smoking and other tobacco use
- Having dental issues resolved
- Limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption
- Visiting the dentist regularly and maintaining good oral hygiene
HPV vaccines for children and young adults are designed to target the HPV subtypes most likely to cause oral cancer. They have been shown to protect against the majority of oral HPV infections. It is unclear whether they can also prevent oral cancers.
- Cancer – mouth
- Mouth cancer
- Head and neck cancer – oral
- Squamous cell cancer – mouth
- Malignant neoplasm – oral
- Oropharyngeal cancer – HPV
- Carcinoma – mouth
- Dry mouth during cancer treatment
- Mouth and neck radiation – discharge
- Swallowing problems