What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer
Oral cancer develops in the gums, lips, cheeks, tongue, the floor of the mouth or the hard palate (the bony part of the roof of the mouth). The disease may be life-threatening without early diagnosis and treatment. On the other hand, survival rates increase with prompt intervention.
Oral cancer occurs when the DNA of cells in the mouth mutate. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) contains your genetic code. Mutated cells can create a tumor that may spread within the mouth and to other areas of the body.
Mouth cancer often begins in thin cells lining the inside of the mouth and the lips, leading to a condition called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)1. The cause of abnormalities in these cells is still unclear but certain factors may increase the risk of oral cancer.
People who have previously had mouth cancer may see a recurrence of the condition, and studies have suggested a slightly higher likelihood of oral cancer if you have a close relative who has had the disease.
Potential Oral Cancer Risk Factors
According to the American Cancer Society2, some people who get mouth cancer carry few – if any – predictable risk factors, while others never develop the disease despite falling into the risk category.
However, medics have identified certain issues that may increase the danger of oral cancer, including:
- Weak immune system.
- Tobacco use – cigars, cigarettes, pipes, snuff, and chewing tobacco.
- Heavy drinking.
- Too much exposure of the lips to sun rays.
- The sexually-transmitted human papillomavirus virus (HPV).
- A diet rich in fried food and red meat.
- Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), when stomach acid gets into the gullet.
- Exposure to chemicals such as formaldehyde, asbestos or sulfuric acid.
Symptoms That May Indicate Oral Cancer
The most common symptoms of oral cancer are persistent pain the mouth and ulcers that don’t heal.
Other potential signs of mouth cancer include:
- Difficulty eating, which may cause weight loss.
- Speech problems such as slurring words.
- A lump in the neck (enlarged lymph node), mouth or lip.
- Particularly bad breath that persists.
- Bleeding in the mouth.
- Numbness of the mouth.
- Loose teeth.
It’s important to bear in mind that these symptoms don’t necessarily indicate oral cancer. Your doctor will investigate more common causes for your problem, such as infection.
Importance of Oral Cancer Screening by Your Dentist
You may not notice the early stages of mouth cancer, so make sure your dentist includes oral cancer screening in your routine check-ups. Untreated, mouth cancer can spread to other oral areas and to the neck, head and the rest of the body.
Your dentist will look for warning signs such as:
- Blocked salivary glands.
- Patches on the tongue or gums.
- Sores that show no sign of healing.
- Unexplained bleeding.
- Irregular bite.
If your dentist finds a suspicious area of tissue, they may remove a sample for biopsy. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF)3, everyone aged 18-plus needs to be screened for mouth cancer every year.
Advanced Technology in Oral Cancer Screening
Some dental offices carry out oral cancer screening with the help of advanced technology such as the VELscope4 wireless, hand-held scanning device.
This scanning tool transmits a blue light to detect abnormalities before they can be seen by the naked eye.
Tissue is naturally fluorescent. If these fluorophores are subjected to blue light, they send out their own light on a longer wavelength such as green.
Surgical and Radiation Treatments for Oral Cancer
In most instances, mouth cancer develops after the age of 40, and particularly in the 60s. Men are more at risk.
The Oral Cancer Foundation says that every year 50,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with mouth cancer or oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the middle area of the throat. These diseases kill almost 10,000 a year – a higher death rate than that of many other cancers.
If spotted early, oral cancer can be treated by surgical removal of the affected area or by radiation therapy.
Surgery entails extracting the tumor and some healthy tissue surrounding it. A small area of cancer may need only minor surgery. Treatment for large tumors may entail removal of part of the jaw bone or tongue.
Radiation therapy can be particularly beneficial in cases of oral cancer, with high-energy radiation particles or X-rays destroying the cancerous cells.
Why Oral Cancer Can Be So Dangerous
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)5, in 2017 an estimated 51,540 adults in the U.S. were diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer. The average age of diagnosis was 62. More than 70 percent of these people were men.
Frequently, oral cancer is only detected once it has spread to another area, generally the lymph nodes of the neck. Prognosis at this stage is significantly worse than when the disease is detected in the mouth.
Oral cancer is particularly dangerous because the early stages may not be noticed because it can often develop without pain or other symptoms. Oral cancer also poses a big risk of tumors proliferating to other areas.
Historically, the death rate with oral cancer is particularly high not because it’s difficult to diagnose but due to the disease being discovered late in its development.
Your Dentist is Your First Line of Defense Against Oral Cancer
Without treatment, oral cancer can spread throughout your body. With early diagnosis, the five-year survival rate for oral cancer is over 80 percent but most cases are not detected until the later stages when the five-year survival rate drops to about 50 percent.
Your dentist is your first line of defense against mouth cancer. If you have problems swallowing, or notice lumps or lesions in your mouth, tell your dentist immediately. They will examine your mouth as a whole – not just your teeth – to detect any cancerous or precancerous indications.