Oral cancers, mouth cancers, cancer of the mouth, cancer of the oral cavity, and head and neck cancers are often used to refer to the same thing; cancerous growths which develop in the mouth.
Like many cancers, oral cancer can be fatal. However, it can be treatable if it’s caught early. Early intervention of oral cancer significantly increases the likelihood of surviving the disease.
Many dentists today perform oral cancer screening as part of a standard checkup and clean.
Where do Oral Cancers Develop?
Oral cancer affects the soft tissues of the mouth. These include:
- Roof of the mouth
- Salivary glands
Symptoms of Oral Cancer
There are many signs and symptoms indicating a person has oral cancer.
- Changes in texture to the tissues inside the mouth. This can be swelling or thickening, lumps and bumps, rough or crusty patches, and eroded areas in the lips, gums, or other soft tissues.
- Appearance of velvety white, red, or speckled patches within the mouth.
- Unexplained bleeding, numbness, loss of feeling, pain or tenderness. This can even be ear pain.
- Persistent sores in the soft tissues of the mouth that bleed easily and don’t heal within 2 weeks.
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or otherwise using the jaw or tongue.
- Teeth or dentures no longer fit together the same way they used to.
- Dramatic weightloss.
Some of these symptoms can be spotted by a dentist during a checkup. It’s important for people to be aware of the normal look and function of their own mouth so they can tell when something is different. If any of these signs are spotted, contact a healthcare professional or dentist immediately.
Causes of Oral Cancer
Oral cancers can develop for many reasons.
The two most common causes are tobacco and alcohol. Smoking tobacco — be it in a pipe, cigarette, or cigar — and excessive drinking makes one six times more likely to develop oral cancer. Those who dip, snuff or chew tobacco are fifty times more likely to develop cancer in their gums, cheek, and lip lining.
Despite the increased risk, over 25% of all oral cancers occur in those who do not smoke or drink excessive alcohol.
Other risk factors for oral cancer include:
- HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
- EBV (Epstein-Barr virus)
- Family history of cancers
- Poor oral hygiene
- Sun exposure
Diagnosing Oral Cancer
A manual and visual examination by a dentist is typically the first step. During an oral cancer screening, a dentist will look for and manually check areas of the mouth for signs of cancer. They’ll be looking for the symptoms above — discoloured areas, sores, and abnormally textured areas.
Typically a biopsy is needed to confirm the diagnosis. This usually involves either a scalpel or laser to remove a small part of the suspect tissue for analysis.
Oral Cancer Treatment
Oral cancers are treated the same way all cancers are. Surgery is performed to remove the cancerous growth. Follow-up treatment with either radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or both, is then used to destroy any remaining cancerous tissues.
Preventing Oral Cancer
There is only so much anyone can do to prevent cancer. There is no way to completely avoid the risk of developing cancers in their life.
However, there are steps people can take to actively lower their risk.
Minimising alcohol consumption and avoiding tobacco products will help remove those risk factors. Practicing proper sun safety when outdoors — paying special attention to your lips — will reduce the risk of lip cancer.
Getting to know your own oral health and keep an eye out for irregularities can help with early detection and intervention. Report any concerning changes and get them thoroughly examined as soon as you notice anything.
Seeing a dentist for an oral cancer screening regularly is also strongly advised.