Nobody wants to think about cancer but chances are, you know someone who has been affected by it in some way. It’s important to have a basic knowledge of common cancers and be aware of warning signs and suspicious symptoms. Knowledge is power when it comes to oral cancer because the sooner it is caught, the less advanced and severe it is. It is ideal to catch it before it has reached the lymph nodes.
What is oral cancer?
Oral cancer, often referred to as oral cavity cancer or mouth cancer, is cancer that develops on any part of the mouth or throat. Oral cancer is one of many cancers categorized as head and neck cancers. It is often treated similarly to other head and neck cancers. The first noticeable symptom of oral cancer might be a sore throat that doesn’t heal, a lump in the mouth or throat, or red and white patches in the gums and throat.
How Common is It?
In 2021, 53,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer and close to 11,000 will die from it. Mouth cancer accounts for approximately 3% of all cancers diagnosed a year in the U.S. Oral cancer is most common in people over 40, twice as common in males than females, and even more common among some minorities, including black males. The overall five-year survival rate for oral cancer is 66%. The five-year survival rate among black males is 50%.
How Do You Get It?
Oral cancers develop when there’s a mutation in the DNA of the lip and mouth cells. A cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The DNA mutates and tells the cells to continue growing and dividing when healthy cells die. The accumulating bad cells might form a tumor. With time, they can spread inside the mouth and on to other areas of the head and neck or other parts of the body.
Mouth cancers most commonly begin in the flat, thin cells (squamous cells) that line your lips and the inside of your mouth. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. There are high-risk behaviors that increase your risk of oral cancer such as smoking and excessive use of alcohol. Other risk factors include:
- Being over the age of 55
- Being exposed to sunlight for long periods
- Having HPV
- Having a weakened immune system
- Having Lichen planus, graft-versus-host (GVHD), a skin disease.
- Having certain blood conditions.
How Do You Recognize it?
Mouth cancer can develop in any part of the oral cavity including the lips, gums, tongue, inner lining of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth or floor of the mouth (under the tongue). Many symptoms might pop up as a result of oral cancer and it’s important to know them as an early diagnosis is key to a full recovery. Symptoms of oral cancer include:
- A lump in the mouth or neck
- Painful swallowing
- Pain when speaking
- White or red spots (in the lining of the mouth or on the lips or gums)
- A lingering hoarse voice
- Lingering pain and numbness in the mouth
- Persistent ear ache
- A swollen jaw
- Loose teeth
- Blood in the mouth
- Sores on or in the mouth that don’t heal with time
How Do You Prevent It?
The good news is, oral cancer is very treatable if caught early on, which is why it’s crucial to see your dentist for routine screenings as well as if you notice any of the above symptoms. There are also preventative measures to take that will decrease your risk of oral cancer such as:
- Quitting the use of tobacco immediately
- Staying out of the sun during daytime hours
- Minimizing alcohol consumption
- Using lip balm with UV protection before going outside
- Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables
How Do You Treat It?
There are different stages of oral cavity cancer. The stage describes how widespread or advanced the cancer is. Determining the stage helps doctors explain the extent of the cancer to their patients. It also helps them determine how to treat it. Treatments range from surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy based on the stage of cancer.
A doctor determines the stage of your cancer by a physical exam and an oral tissue biopsy. There are five stages of oral cancer, starting at zero and going up to four, represented by roman numerals.
Stage 0 Mouth Cancer
Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ, and is the very beginning of the scale. It describes abnormal cells in the lining of the lips or oral cavity, which have the potential to become cancer. It’s ideal to catch it at this stage.
Stage I Mouth Cancer
Stage I describes a very early stage of cancer. The tumor is no more than 2 centimeters, and the cancer has not reached the lymph nodes.
Stage II Mouth Cancer
At stage II there is a tumor that is larger than two centimeters but not more than four centimeters. Stage II has not yet reached the lymph nodes.
Stage III Mouth Cancer
At stage III the cancer is larger than four centimeters or has spread to a lymph node in the neck.
Stage IV Mouth Cancer
Stage IV is the most advanced stage of mouth cancer. It can be any size, but it has spread to:
- nearby tissue, such as the jaw or other parts of the oral cavity
- one large lymph node (more than 3 centimeters in size) and on the same side of the neck as the tumor, multiple lymph nodes of any size on the same side of the neck as the tumor, or one lymph node of any size on the side of the neck opposite the tumor
- distant parts of the body beyond the mouth, such as the lungs
Oral cancer can be diagnosed at any of the five stages and, unfortunately, it can come back after treatment. It’s important to have regular oral cancer screenings by your dentist. It’s also a good idea to look in your mouth once a day after you brush your teeth to see if you notice anything out of the ordinary. Call your Utah Dentist with any concerns you may have and give us a call if you’d like to establish care with us.