Cancer is described as an uncontrollable growth of cells that proliferate quickly, invade the neighboring tissues, and cause irreversible damage to them. Oral cancer, also known as mouth cancer, is cancer that appears as an abnormal growth or sore in the tissue linings of the lip, cheek, mouth, or upper throat. Oral cancer is commonly detected in men over the age of 40 as compared to women of the same age range and accounts for roughly 3% of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. annually. In its recent report of estimated oral cancer data, the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimated that about 53,260 Americans are likely to get oral cavity or oropharyngeal (throat) cancer in 2020, out of which a presumed 10,750 people are likely to succumb to these cancers.
Early detection is key for overturning the negative outcomes of this condition and may help keep you or someone you love safe and secured from becoming one of those people whose lives may be claimed this year by this disease. If not detected early, oral cancer can require surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy to resolve or manage the growth of these cancerous lesions, and may even be life-threatening. Oral cancer is a highly fatal condition, with an overall five-year survival rate of only approximately 50%. A significant part of the reason for its poor prognosis is the failure to recognize its early symptoms as it is easy for the initial signs of oral cancer to be mistaken for other minor conditions like toothache, or the common cold.
Where can oral cancer appear?
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), oral cancer may be vastly divided into two categories – those occurring in the oral cavity, and those occurring in the oropharynx or the throat. In the oral cavity, it can develop on your lips, the inside of your lips and cheeks, the front two-thirds of your tongue, gums, and the floor and roof of your mouth. In the oropharynx, it can occur in the middle region of the throat that includes the tonsils and the base of the tongue. At times, cancer can even develop in the salivary glands and sinuses.
Out of all the oral cancers, two-thirds develop in the oral cavity with only about one-third occurring in the oropharynx and throat tissue.
Symptoms of oral cancer
You may not be able to detect the early signs of oral cancer as they cause mild and vague manifestations. This is why regular visits to the dentist are important where the dentist screens you for oral cancer and all its minuscule symptoms. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTC), a national cancer care network also informs that you should keep a lookout for these oral cancer signs and symptoms.
- Persistent mouth sores that do not heal
- Persistent crusting ulcers on the lip that do not heal
- A lump or thickening in the cheek and neck
- Continuous mouth pain
- An initial painless white patch on the gums, tongue, tonsils, etc.
- Development of velvety red or speckled (white and red) patches in the mouth
- Unexplained bleeding and numbness in the mouth
- A sore throat or persistent feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing or moving the jaw or tongue
- Changes in voice accompanied by hoarseness
- Numbness of the tongue and other areas of the mouth
- Swelling in the jaw that may be painful
- Persistent bad breath or halitosis
- Dramatic weight loss
If any of these symptoms appear or persist for weeks, visit your dentist for a screening. Oral cancer progresses and spreads quickly so it is best if you are diagnosed with it as early as possible.
Who is at risk of getting oral cancer?
Oral cancer kills one American every hour of every day, according to the National Cancer Institute. If this data isn’t alarming enough, researches have reported that the average age at oral cancer diagnosis is 62 years old, but around 25% of cases happen before the age of 55! According to the American Cancer Society, men face twice the risk of developing oral cancer as women. Men over the age of 50 face the greatest risk of developing oral cancer. The prevalence is also noted to be equally distributed among all races with no quantifiable predominance.
Research has identified a number of factors at play that increases the risk of developing oral cancer. Anecdotally, some of the most common risk factors for oral cancer include:
- Smoking: A strong link between smoking, lung cancer, and heart disease has been well-established. But smoking is also considered as the prime flagbearer of oral cancer. People who smoke are six times more likely to develop cancer in the mouth or throat. Eight in ten cancer patients are reported to be smokers.
- Smokeless tobacco: Users of dip, snuff, or chewing tobacco products are estimated to be 50 times more likely to develop cancers of the cheek, gums, and inner surface linings of the lips.
- Excessive alcohol consumption: Studies have demonstrated that approximately 80% of people diagnosed with oral cancer consume more than 21 drinks weekly.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV): Human papillomavirus, a sexually-transmitted infection, has also been associated with throat cancers or at the back of the mouth. They usually occur in the throat at the base of the tongue and in the folds of the tonsils making them difficult to detect.
- Genetic disorders: Some inherited genetic mutations that cause different syndromes in the body may predispose the individual with a higher risk of oral cancer.
How can my dentist help detect oral cancer early?
During a regular exam, your dentist will ask you about changes in your medical, dental, and lifestyle history that may hint to abnormal growth. He or she will ask you if you have been having any new or unusual symptoms.
Your oral cavity (lips, cheek lining, gums, tongue, floor, and roof of the mouth), throat, and tonsils may be examined for any signs of trauma or growth. Your dentist will then feel your jaw and neck for any lumps or abnormalities. If your dentist successfully finds any tumors, growths, or suspicious lesions, they may perform a tissue biopsy. A biopsy is a painless test that collects a piece of tissue so that it can be examined for cancerous cells.
In addition, your dentist may also conduct the following tests:
- X-rays: to see if cancer cells have spread to your jaw, chest, or lungs
- CT scan: to reveal any tumors in your mouth, throat, neck, lungs, or elsewhere in your body
- PET scan: to determine if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and other organs
- MRI scan: to determine the extent or stage of the cancer
- Endoscopy: to examine the nasal passages, sinuses, inner throat, windpipe, and trachea
Your dentist might reexamine you again in a week or two to see if the questionable spots are healing. If they, in fact, suspect cancer, your dentist and you can together create a strategy for treatment and follow-up.
What can I do to prevent oral cancer?
You can implement these changes in your lifestyle to reduce your chances of developing oral cancer:
- Stop using tobacco – chewing or smoking as they are highly carcinogenic
- Limit your alcohol consumption, drink only in moderation
- Avoid excessive sun exposure to your lips as it may increase your risk of cancer
- Visit your dentist regularly to inspect your mouth for suspicious or precancerous lesions
4Smile can help you develop these great habits and give you access to the best dentists for early detection of any oral cancer symptoms.