Oral cancer or mouth cancer is a type of head and neck cancer which begins on the lips or in the mouth. It includes cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, and hard palate and can be life threatening if not diagnosed and treated early.
Symptoms of mouth cancer include the following:
- Mouth ulcers that do not heal
- Pain in your mouth
- White or red patches in the mouth or throat
Abnormal-looking patches could be a sign of cancer or precancerous changes.
White patches are called leukoplakia.
Red patches are called erythroplakia.
These patches are not cancer, but if left untreated, they may lead to cancer. (A fungal infection called oral thrush can also cause red and white patches)
Cancer in your mouth can affect the voice. It might sound different.
Referred pain from back of tongue/base of tongue is invariably referred to the ear on that side, causing a earache.
A lump in your neck
Swelling in one or more lymph nodes in the neck is a common symptom of mouth cancer.
Lumps that come and go are usually not due to cancer. Cancer typically forms a lump that
slowly gets bigger.
Weight loss is a common symptom of many different types of cancer. Mouth cancer can make it painful to eat and difficult to swallow, which can cause weight loss.
Other signs of mouth cancer
These can include one or more of the following:
- Alump or thickening in your lip
- Alump in your mouth or throat
- Unusual bleeding or numbness in your mouth
- Loose teeth for no clear reason
- Difficulty moving your jaw
Diagnosis – what tests will be prescribed?
Different types of pathology and imaging tests are used to diagnose mouth cancer :
Oral Tissue Biopsy:
An oral tissue biopsy is one of the first steps in diagnosing mouth cancer. A small amount of abnormal tissue from the suspected area is removed and sent to a
pathologist for testing.
Special x-rays of the mouth such as such as CT scans, MRIs, or Panorex are used to diagnose the extent of the cancer, if present.
Genomic testing, also called tumor sequencing or molecular profiling, involves looking at the cells obtained from a biopsy to see if there are any genetic mutations that could be linked to the type of cancer detected. Based on the mutations that may be found, the Oncologist can prescribe a drug that has been approved for the specific type of tumour. Genetic information about the tumor can also help to predict the chances of
the cancer returning after treatment.
A team of Surgical Oncologists, Radiation and Medical Oncologists will usually decide on a treatment plan. There are several options for treatment depending upon the stage and location of the cancer:
- Surgery – to remove the cancer. Surgery is the main treatment for most people with mouth cancer. There are different types of surgeries such as Glossectomy, Mandibulectomy, Maxillectomy, Lymph Node Removal during Mouth Cancer Surgery, Reconstructive Surgery for Mouth Cancer, Dental Implants. A head and neck surgeon/oncologist will perform the type of surgery according to the size, stage and location of the tumour.
- Radiation therapy – such as high energy x-rays to destroy the cancerous tissue. These beams (of photons or protons) destroy the cancer cells by damaging their DNA. Radiation therapy is particularly effective against head and neck tumours, including cancers of the mouth. Radiation therapy may be recommended after surgery to prevent the cancer’s regrowth or used as the sole treatment if the tumor cannot be removed surgically. The different types of radiation therapy used are Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), Image-Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT), Brachytherapy and Proton therapy.
- Chemotherapy – using drugs to kill the cancerous cells. This is sometimes used
in conjunction with radiation and is referred to as chemoradiation.
Mouth Cancer Causes, Risk Factors & Prevention:
Mouth cancer can affect anyone, but using tobacco products and regularly drinking too much alcohol greatly increase the chances. Other major risk factors include sun exposure. Infection with the sexually transmitted disease human papillomavirus (HPV) has been associated with mouth cancer as well, but there is a much stronger link between HPV and throat cancer.
Studies have shown that as many as eight in ten people with mouth cancer are tobacco users. Tobacco includes both smoking and smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco).
Excessive consumption of alcohol is the other major risk factor for mouth cancer besides tobacco use.
Gutka and betel
People who chew betel quid or gutka have an increased risk of cancer of the mouth.
Mouth cancer is nearly twice as common in men as in women, possibly because men have higher rates of tobacco and alcohol use.
Cancers of the mouth usually take many years to develop, so they are not common in young people. Most people are over 40 when cancer is first found in the mouth. The average age of diagnosis is around 60.
Ways to Prevent Mouth Cancer
Here are the top ways to reduce mouth cancer risk:
- Quitting smoking
- Drinking alcohol in moderation
- Protection against HPV infection
- Avoiding extended periods of time in the sun and use of tanning beds
- Regular checkups with a dentist are important particularly if you do use tobacco or drink heavily. That’s because many mouth cancers are found during routine dental appointments.