Oral cancer - signs, treatments, and facts

Understanding symptoms of oral cancer

Cancer is always a scary diagnosis, but when oral cancer is caught early, it can be highly treatable. The best thing you can do for you and your family is to know the early warning signs and preventative care for this disease. Oral cancer can develop anywhere in your mouth or the upper part of your throat. It can appear on the lips, base or roof of the mouth, tongue, throat, tonsils, lining of the cheeks, gums, throat, or a number of other places.

Oral cancer most commonly starts on the lips or the base of the mouth before spreading to other areas. It most often takes the form of carcinomas, which begin in the flat cells on the surface of the mouth, called squamous cells. Squamous cell carcinomas can then metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body through the body's blood or lymph system.

What are the early warning signs and symptoms of oral cancer?

One of the best ways to protect yourself from oral cancer is to routinely check for symptoms of the disease. Oral cancer often shows warning signs early on and if you visit a doctor as soon as these symptoms appear, your treatment options are good. Early signs of oral cancer can be a sore that doesn't heal, a whitish or reddish patch on the lining of the mouth, a lump or thickening of the skin in the mouth, bleeding in the mouth, an earache, a sore throat or jaw, difficulty in swallowing or chewing, speech difficulties or loose fitting dentures or teeth. If any of these symptoms last for more than two weeks, it’s best to get it checked out by your family doctor.

What are the screenings and tests for oral cancer?

As part of an ordinary check-up or as a result of patient concerns, your primary care physician or dentist will review your symptoms and conduct a physical inspection of your mouth and throat. If the signs are indicative of cancer, they will refer you to a specialist doctor or dentist who is trained to deal with various diseases of the mouth and throat.

This specialist will carry out another physical exam and may take a tissue sample to be analyzed in a laboratory. This tissue sample, or biopsy, is the only way to know for certain whether a problem spot is cancerous.

Once cancer is diagnosed, in order to find out how far the cancer has progressed, a doctor can order one or more tests. These tests include x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, endoscopies, and PT scans. Each of these tests shows the doctor where the cancer is and whether it has moved to other parts of the body. Some scans, such as the endoscopy (a camera on a thin tube that is inserted in the mouth and throat), can only target small areas of the body while others, like the MRI, can take a detailed picture of the entire body.

What’s the treatment for oral cancer?

There are several highly effective forms of treatment for oral cancer, often used at the same time for the best and fastest chance for recovery. The type of treatment given depends on the severity of the cancer, how far it has spread, and the type of cancer involved.

Surgery – A surgeon will go in and remove the tumor; they may also remove nearby lymph nodes to keep the cancer from spreading.

Radiotherapy – A treatment that uses high-energy radiation waves to shrink tumors and destroy cancerous cells. Side effects of radiotherapy can range from dry mouth and fatigue to thyroid problems, but can often be managed with medication.

Chemotherapy – This treatment, often given intravenously in the form of a drug, can also be given orally as tablets and is usually administered in conjunction with radiotherapy. It kills fast-growing cancer cells but may also affect other cells in the body, sometimes leading to hair loss, nausea and vomiting. Other side effects are similar to radiotherapy.

Targeted therapy – This specialized treatment involves administering a drug that specifically targets oral cancer. It’s often given along with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Test groups and clinical trials – New treatments for oral cancer are being developed continuously and patients can sign up to try the new treatments on a test basis.

Pain management – A component of cancer treatment is palliative care, which is the treatment of pain or other symptoms of cancer. This can take the form of drugs, exercise, or alternative therapy.

Oral cancer statistics

The risk of developing oral cancer increases with heavy smoking, heavy drinking, frequent and intense exposure of the lips to the sun, and having previously had cancer. HPV, the human papillomavirus, is also most likely a risk factor. The likelihood of developing oral cancer is greater in men and those over the age of 40.

If oral cancer is discovered early, the cure rate is nearly 90%. If, however, the cancer has already spread before diagnosis, the survival rate is 60% after five years of treatment. The best outcome for oral cancer is always early diagnosis and treatment.

About 2% of all cancer diagnosed in the US is oral cancer – that’s about 40,000 people a year. About 1% of people born today will develop oral cancer during their lifetime.

Is oral cancer contagious?

No. Oral cancer is not contagious; you cannot contract it from another individual. A healthy diet, good oral hygiene, including regularly brushing and flossing your teeth, and visiting your dentist on a regular basis are some of the best ways to prevent oral cancer.

Oral cancer and smoking

Tobacco use is the number one cause of oral cancer. Three quarters of people who develop oral cancer have used tobacco. Heavy smokers who have smoked for a long time are the highest risk group. Alcohol use in addition to heavy smoking can increase this risk.

Quitting tobacco is always recommended to reduce your risk of oral cancer. It is also highly beneficial to quit smoking, even after oral cancer has been diagnosed. This can reduce the risk of developing additional cancers or other harmful diseases, and will increase your overall health. Continuing to smoke during cancer treatments can impair their effectiveness and make it more difficult for your body to heal.

Oral cancer, when caught early enough, is a highly treatable condition with a wide range of therapies available. As it is so important to catch this disease early, regular checkups can be of great help. To reduce the risk of oral cancer, it is recommended to limit or stop use of tobacco and decrease intake of alcohol with smoking. It’s also important to understand and respond to symptoms as soon as they occur. Overall good oral hygiene can lead to a healthy mouth, a reduced risk for oral cancer and a great smile!


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