Cancer is the uncontrollable growth of cells that invades and damages any tissue surrounding it. Oral cancer appears as a growth or sore in the mouth that does not go away within 2 weeks. Oral cancer can begin on the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and throat. Without early diagnosis oral cancer can be life threatening.
The most common symptoms of oral cancer include:
- Swelling, lumps or bumps, rough spots or crust around areas inside the mouth
- The development of velvety white, red, or speckled (white and red) patches in the mouth
- Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
- Unexplained numbness, loss of feeling, or pain in any area of the face, mouth, or neck
- Persistent sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within 2 weeks
- A soreness or feeling that something is caught in the back of the throat
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
- Hoarseness, chronic sore throat, or change in voice
- Ear pain
- A change in the way your teeth or dentures fit together
- Dramatic weight loss
There are many risk factors that can cause oral cancer:
- Smokers or smokeless tobacco users are 6 times more likely than non-tobacco users to develop oral cancer. Using smokeless tobacco makes a person 50 times more likely to develop cancer of the cheek, gums, and lining of the lips.
- Excessive consumption of alcohol. Oral cancer is 6 times more common in drinkers than nondrinkers.
- Family history of cancer
- Excessive sun exposure
- Human papilloma virus. (HPV)
According to the American Cancer Society, men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer as women, and men who are over age 50 face the greatest risk. Only 25% of oral cancer occurs in people that do not use tobacco or that only consume alcohol occasionally.
There are two ways to diagnose oral cancer. One is by a physical exam. A doctor or dentist will examine the lips and mouth to look for any abnormalities, such as sores and white patches. Another way is removal of tissue for testing. If a suspicious area is found, the doctor or dentist may remove a sample of cells for laboratory testing in a procedure called a biopsy. Unusual cells can be scraped away with a brush or cut away using a scalpel. In the laboratory, the cells are analyzed for cancer or precancerous changes that indicate a risk of future cancer.
Once diagnosed, the doctor can determine the stage of cancer the patient is in. This can be done during a procedure called endoscopy, the doctor may pass a lighted scope down the throat to look for signs that cancer has spread beyond the mouth. A variety of imaging tests can also be used. Imaging tests may include X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, among others. Not everyone needs each test. Mouth cancer stages are indicated using Roman numerals I through IV. A lower stage, such as stage I, indicates a smaller cancer confined to one area. A higher stage, such as stage IV, indicates a larger tumor or that cancer has spread to other areas of the head or neck, or to other areas of the body.
Oral cancer is treated the same way many other cancers are treated, with surgery to remove the cancerous growth, followed by radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells. To help prevent oral cancer it is important to not smoke or use any tobacco products and drink alcohol in moderation. Repeated exposure to the sun increases the risk of cancer on the lip, especially the lower lip. When in the sun, use UV-A/B-blocking sun protective lotions on skin, as well as lips.
It is recommended to conduct a self-exam at least once a month. Using a bright light and a mirror, look and feel the lips and front of your gums, then tilt the head back and look at and feel the roof of the mouth. Pull the checks out to view the inside of the mouth, the lining of the cheeks, and the back gums. Pull out the tongue and look at all surfaces; examine the floor of the mouth. Look at the back of the throat. Feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes in both sides of the neck and under the lower jaw. Call a dentist's office immediately if any changes are noticed in the appearance of the mouth or any of the signs and symptoms mentioned above.
It’s important to see a dentist on a regular schedule sometimes dangerous spots or sores in the mouth can be very tiny and difficult to see. The American Cancer Society recommends oral cancer screening exams every 3 years for persons over age 20 and annually for those over age 40. During your next dental appointment, ask your dentist to perform an oral exam. Early detection can improve the chance of successful treatment.
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