Do you know the signs of oral cancer?

Do you know the signs of oral cancer?

Mouth cancer is, possibly, one of the least considered cancers in the world, yet can have as great a significance on your health as the better known, ‘bigger’ cancers. Oral cancer refers to any cancer that develops within the tissues of the throat and mouth cavity, so it covers cancer of the tonsils, gums, tongue, lips, pharynx, jaw and more. However, knowing how to spot the early signs of mouth cancer is crucial to a swift, healthy recovery. Today, Vitality Dental takes a closer look at oral cancer stages and everything you need to know.

How prevalent is oral cancer?

Current statistics suggest over 50,000 US citizens will suffer from mouth cancer this year, with men slightly more likely to suffer from this specific cancer type than their female counterparts. Don’t let that cause you to panic, however. Huge advancements in the identification and treatment of oral cancers have been made in the last three decades, and the survival rate has significantly increased. Of course, early diagnosis is important, so it’s important you know how to spot the early signs of mouth cancer.

What are the early signs of mouth cancer?

It’s important to realise that the individual stages of oral cancer, as well as the first signs and symptoms of mouth cancer, can vary significantly from person-to-person. This means that, if you spot any significant change in your oral health that concerns you, even if it doesn’t match the symptoms on this list, it’s important for you to raise the issue with your dental health care provider. It’s highly likely that you will not be suffering from a mouth cancer, but rather another dental issue, however it is always best to be safe rather than sorry. Any sudden change in your oral health is important to address quickly for effective treatment.

With that said many mouth cancers manifest with common symptoms of mouth sores or unexplained, unvarying pain in the mouth, lips, tonsils or tongue. Watch for signs such as red or white patches developing on the tissue of the lips, mouth, gums and tonsils, or inside your cheeks. Other key signs can include a lump or swelling on the neck or on your lips or cheek, sudden difficulty when you chew and swallow, or the sensation of something being stuck in your throat.

Other slightly more subtle signs of oral ill health such as sudden difficulty moving your tongue or jaw, sudden unexplained weight loss, or halitosis [bad breath] that’s proving unresponsive to treatment. Changes to your voice may also signify possible oral cancer affecting the throat or larynx.

Am I at risk of mouth cancer?

Research into the causes of oral cancers haven’t actually revealed the specific reasons that oral cancers develop, so there is no definitive answer to why people develop mouth cancers. However, cancers typically develop when the DNA of the cells is damaged or subject to sudden mutation. We do know that the following contribute heavily to the risk of these cancers:

  • Use of tobacco: This isn’t limited to smoking only, but includes cigars, smokeless tobacco, and chewing tobacco. Due to the presence of many known carcinogens in tobacco, it contributes heavily to the risk of oral cancer by exposing delicate oral tissues to these mutagens.
  • Radiation exposure: Workers who are routinely exposed to radiation, such as X-ray techs, are at higher risk of contracting cancers of all sorts.
  • Human papillomavirus [HPV]: HPV can be a risk factor for oral cancers of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils. There has also been a recent rise in this particular form of oral cancer, the only form of oral cancer on the rise, so it is worth considering the vaccination for HPV if available to you.
  • Sun damage: Damage from over-exposure to strong sunlight on the lips can increase your risk factors for mouth cancer. Opt for a sunscreen you can use on your lips, or a lip balm with sun protection factors.
  • Surviving other cancers: Having had one form of cancer can raise your risk of other cancers.
  • Alcohol consumption: While more applicable to heavy drinkers then occasional drinkers; alcohol is also a risk factor for the development of oral cancers.
  • Age: Risk of mouth cancers increase once you pass 45 and is higher in the elderly.
  • Poor oral health: The stress placed on the immune system where oral health is poor can make you more susceptible to cellular damage, disease and bacterial colonization, opening up the door to cancers.

Limit exposure to these risk factors where possible to significantly reduce your chance of contracting oral cancers.

What are the stages of oral cancers? How are they treated?

While the diagnosis and stages of oral cancer can be confusing to the non-medical man on the street, here are the rough stages into which the progression of oral cancer can be divided, and how each stage is typically treated. Remember that there are many varieties of oral cancer, so treatment can vary depending on the affected part of the mouth. Always trust the advice of your medical treatment team.

Stage 0

Stage 0 is called carcinoma in-situ, where the cancer lies on the surface tissue layer without significant tissue invasion. Usual treatment is surgery to excise affected tissue. While this is usually the most successful stage of oral cancer to treat, it’s important to closely monitor the site for signs of the cancer recurring. Radiotherapy may be recommended, but is not usual. Lifestyle habits contributing to oral cancer risk must be reduced or eliminated.

Stage 1 and 2

These stages have progressed from stage 0, but are still highly treatable with a combination of surgery and radiotherapy. Chemotherapy will on occasion be used after surgery to ensure all damaged tissues are shrunk and killed.

Stages 3, 4 and 4a

At these stages, oral cancer has turned very aggressive and has spread either to the lymph nodes or adjacent tissues. It will take a careful and balanced treatment program of radiation, chemo and surgery to address these cancers, and lymph nodes may need to be removed.

Stage 4b and 4c

HPV-negative cancers that have spread through the oral area fall into this category, and need similar serious treatment.

While it’s impossible to eliminate every possibility or mouth cancer, you can take many steps to help lower your risk factors for these types of cancer. Regular consultations with your dental health practitioner will also help ensure any issues you may have are identified early, ensuring a successful treatment plan can be enacted.

This article has been approved by

Dr. Vijay Bhargava BDS MFDS RCS (Eng) MSurgDent (Eng) DipImpDent (UCL)

Dental Surgeon with Interest in Oral Surgery & Implant Dentistry

GDC 82259