What Is Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer refers to the abnormal growth of cells in the mouth, tongue, lips, or throat. This type of cancer can be life-threatening if not diagnosed and treated early. Knowing the types of oral cancer and their symptoms can help you to detect the disease early and seek prompt medical attention.
Oral Cancer Symptoms
The symptoms of oral cancer can vary depending on the location and stage of the cancer, but some common symptoms include:
- Mouth sores that don’t heal or bleed easily
- Red or white patches on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
- Swelling or lumps in the mouth, neck, or throat
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing or speaking
- Persistent hoarseness or a change in voice
- Numbness or tingling in the mouth or lips
- Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit properly
- Unexplained weight loss
- Ear pain or a persistent sore throat
Some of these symptoms may be caused by other conditions, so it’s essential to see your doctor or dentist if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms. Early detection and treatment of oral cancer can greatly increase the chances of a successful outcome.
Types of Oral Cancer
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of oral cancer, accounting for over 90 percent of all cases. This cancer develops in the thin, flat cells lining the mouth, throat, and lips. Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as a white or red patch in the mouth or as a sore that doesn’t heal. Risk factors include smoking, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and sun exposure.
Verrucous carcinoma is slow-growing cancer that usually appears as a wart-like growth in the mouth. This type of cancer is rare, accounting for less than 5 percent of all oral cancers. Verrucous carcinoma is usually found in people with a history of tobacco use or alcohol consumption.
Minor Salivary Gland Carcinoma
Minor salivary gland carcinoma develops in the glands that produce saliva in the mouth. This cancer can occur anywhere in the mouth, but it’s most commonly found in the roof of the mouth or near the tonsils. Symptoms include a lump or sore in the mouth, difficulty swallowing, and a change in voice.
Lymphoma affects the lymphatic system, which helps fight infections. This type of cancer can develop in the lymph nodes or other tissues in the mouth, such as the tonsils or salivary glands. Symptoms of oral lymphoma may include swelling, pain, and difficulty swallowing.
Oral melanoma is a rare cancer that develops in the cells that produce pigment in the mouth. This type of cancer may appear as a dark, irregularly shaped growth or lesion in the mouth. Risk factors include a family history of melanoma, sun exposure, and fair skin.
Adenocarcinoma develops in the cells that produce mucus in the mouth. This type of cancer can occur anywhere in the mouth or throat, but it’s most commonly found in the glands under the tongue or near the tonsils. Symptoms include a lump or sore in the mouth, difficulty swallowing, and a change in voice.
Mucoepidermoid carcinoma develops in the glands that produce saliva in the mouth. This type of cancer can occur anywhere in the mouth, but it’s most commonly found in the parotid gland, which is located in front of the ear. Symptoms include a lump or swelling in the mouth or neck, difficulty swallowing, and a change in voice.
Sarcoma develops in the bones, muscles, or connective tissue of the mouth or throat. This type of cancer is rare and usually appears as a lump or swelling in the mouth or neck. Symptoms may include difficulty swallowing, pain, or a change in voice.
Causes of Oral Cancer
Oral cancer is primarily caused by lifestyle factors, including:
- Tobacco use (smoking, chewing, etc.)
- Alcohol consumption
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Sun exposure
- Poor oral hygiene
Diagnosis and Staging of Oral Cancer
The diagnosis of oral cancer typically involves a biopsy, where a small sample of tissue is removed and examined under a microscope. Imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, MRI, and PET scans may also be used to determine the extent of the cancer.
The staging of oral cancer is based on the TNM system. The system takes into account the size of the tumor, whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes, and whether it has metastasized to other parts of the body.
Oral Cancer Treatment
The treatment plan for oral cancer depends on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health. In many cases, a combination of treatments may be recommended. There are several treatment options available for oral cancer, including:
- Surgery: Often the first treatment option for oral cancer. The type of surgery depends on the location and size of the cancerous cells.
- Radiation therapy: The use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy: The use of drugs to kill cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy: The use of drugs that specifically target cancer cells, while minimizing damage to healthy cells.
- Immunotherapy: The use of drugs that help the body’s immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells.
Preventing Oral Cancer
The best way to prevent oral cancer is to reduce exposure to risk factors. Regular dental checkups can help detect oral cancer early, while avoiding tobacco and alcohol, practicing good oral hygiene, getting the HPV vaccine, and protecting your skin from the sun can all lower your risk of developing oral cancer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can oral cancer be prevented?
While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent oral cancer, some things you can do to reduce your risk include avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption, wearing protective clothing and sunscreen when exposed to the sun, and maintaining good oral hygiene.
What should I do if I suspect I have oral cancer?
If you notice any unusual symptoms in your mouth or throat, such as persistent pain or swelling, difficulty swallowing or speaking, or unexplained bleeding or numbness, see a doctor or dentist as soon as possible for evaluation and diagnosis.
What are some common side effects of oral cancer treatment?
Side effects of oral cancer treatment can include:
- Hair loss
- Changes in taste and appetite
Is oral cancer more common in men or women?
Oral cancer is more common in men than women. According to the American Cancer Society, men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer as women. However, women who smoke and drink heavily may also be at increased risk for the disease.
Early Detection Saves Lives
If you suspect you may have oral cancer or have any concerns about your oral health, make an appointment with your doctor or dentist for an evaluation. Early detection and treatment can greatly improve the chances of successful outcomes.