Oral cancer or mouth cancer refers to cancer that develops in any part of your mouth or oral cavity.
It develops in the tissues of either the mouth or throat and belongs to a larger group, Hand and Neck Cancers.
In most cases, it develops in squamous cells that are found in your mouth, tongue, and lips.
It is important to note that more than 49,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with oral cancer.
Now imagine the number all around the world?
Moreover, it occurs in people who are 40 years of age. It is often present as red or white patches and can spread to become head and neck cancers, lip cancer or oropharyngeal cancer.
In most cases, oral cancer is diagnosed after it is spread to the lymph nodes of the neck, however, early detection is the key to surviving oral cancer.
Additionally, it appears as a growth or sore in the mouth that does not go away.
Let’s discuss the types, causes, symptoms, and treatment options in detail.
Types of Oral Cancer and Risk Factors
Oral cancer includes cancers of lips, tongue, inner linings of the cheek, gums, floor of the mouth, or hard and soft palate.
In most cases, your dentist is the first healthcare provider to notice the signs of oral cancer.
Thus, getting biannual dental checkups is important to make sure you do not risk any serious medical condition.
One of the biggest risk factors for oral cancer is the use of tobacco and its by-products.
This includes smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes as well as chewing tobacco.
Moreover, if you consume a large amount of alcohol and smoke you are even at a higher risk of developing it.
This is especially the case if you do it regularly. Oral risk factors are as follows:
Moreover, if you had been previously diagnosed with oral cancer, have a family history of cancer or oral cancer, or are a male, then you risk developing it.
It is important to note that men are more likely to develop oral cancer than women.
Learn more about Quit Smoking for a Better Oral Health here.
Symptoms of Oral Cancer
A sore on your lip that does not go away, growth or mass in your mouth, bleeding from the mouth, loose teeth, pain, or difficulty swallowing are the symptoms of oral cancer.
Moreover, the trouble wearing dentures, a lump in your neck, a persistent earache, weight loss, lower lip, face, neck or chin numbness, a sore throat, jaw pain or stiffness, and tongue pain are also the signs and symptoms.
You might also observe white, or red patches in or on your mouth or lips.
It is important to note that symptoms like sore throat or earache can also indicate other medical conditions.
However, if you do notice any of the above symptoms and they do not go away or have more than one at a time, then it is important to visit your dentist or doctor as soon as possible.
Causes of Oral Cancer
A mouth cancer forms when the cells on your lips or in the mouth develop changes or mutations in their DNA.
Your cell’s DNA contains that instructions that guide it on what to do.
However, the mutations tell the cells to continue growing and dividing when healthy cells would die.
This accumulation of abnormal cancer cells forms a tumor.
With time, they may spread inside your mouth and on to the other areas of the head and neck, or in other parts of your body.
It is important to note that they commonly begin in the flat, thin cells or squamous cells that line your lips and insides of your mouth.
Most of them are squamous cell carcinomas.
However, it is not clear what causes the mutations in the squamous cells that lead to mouth cancer.
However, certain factors mentioned above can increase your risk of mouth or oral cancer.
Stages of Oral Cancer
There are 4 stages of oral cancer. These are:
- In stage 1, the tumor is 2 cm or centimeters or smaller and has not yet spread to the lymph nodes.
- The tumor is between 2 to 4 cm in stage 2 and cancer cells have not spread to the nodes in this one as well.
- The tumor is either larger than 4 cm or has not spread to the lymph nodes in stage 3. It has spread to one lymph node but not to the other parts of the body
- In stage 4, tumors vary in size and cancer has spread to nearby tissues, the lymph nodes, or other parts of the body.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rates of the oral cavity and pharynx cancer are:
83% for localized cancer that has not spread, 64% for the one that has spread to the nearby lymph nodes, and 38% that has spread to other parts of the body.
Moreover, 60% of individuals with oral cancer will survive for 5 years or more.
The earlier the diagnosis, the higher the chances of survival after treatment.
In fact, the 5 years survival rate in those with stages 1 and 2 is typically 70 to 90%. This makes timely diagnosis and treatment all the more important.
Diagnosis of Oral Cancer
At first, your doctor or dentist will perform a physical exam and it includes examining the roof and floor of your mouth, the back of your throat, tongue, and cheeks.
Moreover, they will also examine the lymph nodes that are present in your neck.
However, if they are unable to determine what is causing your symptoms, they may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat, ENT specialist.
In case your doctor finds tumors, growths, or suspicious lesions, they will perform a brush biopsy or a tissue biopsy.
A brush biopsy is a painless procedure that collects cells from the tumor by brushing them onto a slide.
However, in a tissue biopsy, your doctor will remove a piece of tissue so that they can examine it under a microscope for examination.
Additionally, they will also perform the following tests:
- X-rays: To see if cancer cells have spread to the jaw, chest, or lungs.
- A CT Scan: It helps to reveal any tumors in the mouth, throat, neck, lungs, or in any part of the body
- PET Scan: It helps to determine if the cancer cell has traveled to the lymph nodes or other organs
- MRI Scan: To show a more accurate image of the head and neck and determine the extent or stage of cancer.
- Endoscopy: helps to examine the nasal passage, sinuses, inner throat, windpipe, and trachea.
Learn more about Sinus Infection and Toothache here.
Treatment for oral cancer varies and depends on the type, location, and stage of cancer at diagnosis.
Let’s discuss the treatment options as follows:
Treatment of early stages involves surgery to remove the tumor and cancerous lymph nodes. Additionally, they may also take out other tissues around the mouth and neck.
Another treatment option is radiation therapy.
During this therapy, your doctor will aim radiation beams at the tumor once or twice a day, for 5 days a week, for 2 to 8 weeks.
However, for advanced stages, the treatment usually involves a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Chemotherapy is a treatment with drugs that helps to kill cancer. The medicine they will administer is either orally or through an intravenous IV line.
Most often, individuals get this treatment on an outpatient basis, although some may even require hospitalization.
Other options are as follows:
Targeted therapy is another form of treatment for oral cancer, and can be effective in both early and advanced stages of cancer.
This treatment uses drugs that will bind to the specific proteins on cancer cells and interfere with their growth.
Nutrition is an important factor that plays part in the treatment of your oral cancer. Many treatments make it difficult or painful to eat and swallow and poor appetite, and weight loss is common.
It is important to discuss your diet with your doctor.
Moreover, getting the advice of a nutritionist can help you plan a food menu that will be gentle on your mouth and throat.
It will also provide your body with enough vitamins, calories, and minerals that you need to heal.
Keeping Your Mouth Healthy
Lastly, keeping your mouth healthy during cancer treatments is an integral part of the treatment.
Make sure to keep your mouth moist and your teeth and gums clean.
Recovering from Oral Cancer Treatment
The recovery from each type of oral cancer varies, while post-surgery symptoms can include pain and swelling, however, removing small tumors usually has no long-term problems.
However, in the case of the removal of larger tumors, it can affect your ability to chew, swallow, or talk as well as it did before the surgery.
Some of the negative side effects of radiation therapy are as follows:
Jaw stiffness and pain, problems wearing dentures, fatigue, change in your taste and smell, changes in your skin, including dryness and burning, weight loss, and thyroid changes.
In case you are receiving chemotherapy, the drugs can be toxic to rapidly grow noncancerous cells.
These are hair loss, pain in the mouth and gums, bleeding, severe anemia, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, mouth, and lip sore.
Moreover, you may also experience numbness in the hands and feet.
However, recovery from targeted therapies is often minimal, and side effects include fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, an allergic reaction, or skin rashes.
Although these treatments have side effects as well, they are often necessary for beating cancer.
Your doctor will make sure to discuss the side effects and help you weigh the pros and cons of your treatment.
Reconstruction and Rehabilitation
After the treatment of oral cancer, you will likely need reconstructive surgery and some rehabilitation to assist with eating and speaking during the recovery period.
Reconstruction can involve dental implants or grafts to repair the missing bones and tissues in the mouth or face.
Artificial palates are also used to replace missing tissue or teeth.
For advanced cases of cancer, rehabilitation is also necessary. Speech therapy can also help from the time you get out of surgery until you reach a maximum level of improvement.
The outlook of oral cancers depends on the type, and stage of cancer at diagnosis, and also depends on your general health, age, and tolerance, and response to treatment. Early diagnosis is important and has a higher chance of successful treatment.
After treatment, your doctor will want you to get frequent checkups to make sure that you are recovering. These will consist of physical exams, blood tests, X-rays, and CT scans. Make sure to follow you’re following the advice of your dentist and doctors and inform them if you notice anything out of the ordinary.