Oral cancer is a cancer that develops in the
tissues of the mouth or throat. Most develop in the squamous cells found in
your mouth, tongue, and lips. Oral cancers are most
often discovered after they have spread to the lymph nodes of the neck. Early detection is key to surviving this cancer.
Types of Oral Cancers
Oral cancers include cancers of the:
- floor of the mouth
- hard and soft palate
Your first line of defense against oral
cancers is your dentist. They’re often the first healthcare provider to notice signs of oral cancer.
Factors for Developing Oral Cancer
There is no question
that certain behaviors can increase your chances of developing oral cancer. One
of the biggest risk factors is tobacco use — including
smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or the use of chewing tobacco.
People who consume large amounts of alcohol and tobacco are at an even greater risk, especially when both products are used on a regular basis.
Other risk factors include:
infection (a sexually transmitted virus)
- chronic facial
previous diagnosis of oral cancer
family history of oral or
other type of cancer
The risk for oral cancer increases with age.
According to the American Dental
Association, adults over the age of 44 are at the greatest risk. The average age of diagnosis is
62. Men are also twice as likely to get oral cancer as compared to women.
Are Symptoms of Oral Cancer?
The symptoms of oral cancer are similar to
other nonthreatening oral problems. However, if you
notice any of the below symptoms — especially if you have more than one at a time — you should
visit your dentist or doctor as soon as possible.
Symptoms of oral cancer include:
sore on your lip or mouth that won’t heal
from the mouth
or difficulty with swallowing
that won’t go away
lip, face, neck, or chin numbness
red and white, or red patches in mouth or lips
How Is Oral Cancer Diagnosed?
First, your doctor or dentist will give you a
physical exam. This includes closely examining the roof and floor of your
mouth, back of your throat, tongue, cheeks, and the lymph nodes in your neck.
If your doctor cannot determine why you are experiencing your symptoms, you may be referred
to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.
Your doctor will either perform a brush or tissue
biopsy if any tumors or growths are found.
A brush biopsy is a painless
test that collects cells from the tumor by brushing
them onto a slide. A tissue biopsy involves removing a piece of the tissue so it
can be checked for cancerous cells.
In addition, your doctor may perform one or
more of the following tests:
- X-rays to
see if cancer cells have spread to the jaw, chest, or
- CT scan,
with or without dye. The scan will show any tumors in your mouth, throat, neck,
lungs, or anywhere else in your body.
- MRI will show if cancer has spread to anywhere else in your
- Endoscopy is
a thin, lighted tube that is
placed down your throat to examine the inner throat, windpipe, and lungs.
- PET scan, where
the doctor will give you an injection of radioactive sugar. The PET scanner
will be able to view where the sugar is collecting. Cancer cells will take up
or collect sugar faster than normal cells.
What Are the Stages of
There are four stages of oral cancer. Stages 1 and 2 usually
involve a small tumor. In these stages, cancer cells have not spread to the
Stages 3 and 4 are considered
advanced stages of cancer. In these stages, tumors are large and the cancer
cells have usually spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the
survival rate after one year for all stages of oral cancer is 81 percent. After
five years, the survival rate is 56 percent. After 10 years, it is 41 percent. This makes timely diagnosis and
treatment all the more important.
Is Oral Cancer Treated?
Treatment for oral cancer will vary depending
on what stage you are in.
Early treatment usually involves surgery to
remove the tumor and cancerous lymph nodes. In
addition, other tissue around the mouth and neck may be taken out.
Radiation therapy is another
option. This involves a doctor aiming radiation at the tumor once or twice a
day, five days a week, for two to eight weeks (depending on
your tumor size). An advanced course of treatment will usually involve a
combination of chemotherapy and radiation
Chemotherapy is treatment with drugs that kill cancer
cells. The medicine is given to you either orally or through an intravenous (IV) line. A number of
people get chemotherapy on an outpatient basis, although some require hospitalization.
Targeted therapy is another form of treatment. It can be
effective in both early and advanced stages of cancer. Targeted therapy drugs
will bind to cancer cells while interfering with their growth. This form of
treatment is usually given through an IV.
Nutrition is an important part of your oral cancer
treatment. Make sure you discuss your diet with your doctor. Getting the advice
of a nutritionist can help you plan a food menu that will be gentle to your
sore mouth and throat and will provide your body with
the vitamins and minerals you need.
Finally, keeping your mouth healthy during cancer
treatments is a crucial part of treatment. Make sure to keep your mouth
moist and your teeth and gums clean.
from Oral Cancer Treatment
The recovery from each type of treatment will
vary. Recovery from surgery can involve pain and swelling, but removing small
tumors usually has no associated long-term problems. The removal of larger
tumors could possibly affect your ability to chew,
swallow, or talk as well as you did before the surgery. You might also need reconstructive surgery to rebuild the bones and tissues in
Radiation therapy can have a negative effect
on the body. Some of the side effects of radiation include:
throat or mouth
or bleeding gums
- long-term healing after dental care
stiffness and pain
in your ability to taste and smell
in skin including dryness and burning
Chemotherapy drugs can be toxic to rapidly
growing cells that aren’t cancerous. Some of the side effects include:
mouth and gums
in the mouth
and lip sores
in hands and feet
Recovering from targeted therapies can be
uncomfortable, but the symptoms are much less severe than other forms of
treatment. The side effects of this treatment can include:
Rehabilitation After Oral Cancer Treatment
Individuals who are diagnosed with advanced
oral cancer will likely need reconstructive surgery and some rehabilitation to assist with
eating and speaking during recovery.
Reconstruction can involve dental implants or
grafts (where skin, muscle, and bone are moved from another area, usually the
chest, arm, or leg) to repair the missing bones and tissues in the mouth or face. Artificial palates are used to replace any
missing tissue or teeth.
Rehabilitation is also necessary in advanced
cancer cases. Speech therapy can be provided from the time you get out of
surgery until you reach maximum level of improvement.
The outlook for oral cancers depends on when
you’re diagnosed, as well as response to treatment. Early diagnosis is critical because it is easier to treat stage 1 and stage 2 cancers. After
treatment, your doctor will want you to get frequent
checkups to make sure that you are cancer free. Your
checkups will usually consist of physical exams, blood tests, X-rays, and/or CT
scans. Above all else, follow up with your dentist or oncologist
if you notice anything out of the ordinary — doing so could very well save your life.