Oral cancer (mouth cancer) refers to the cancer of any part of the mouth which includes the lips, tongue, gums, throat, the inner lining of the cheeks, roof and floor of the mouth. Rare tumors which develop in the salivary glands, tonsils, and pharynx are also considered as oral cancers. Oral cancers can affect the functions of the mouth such as speech, chewing, swallowing and can emotionally disturb the patient.
The early signs of oral cancer may include white or red patches on the tongue or on the lining of the mouth. The other symptoms which may be evident include:
- Mouth ulcers or sores that do not heal even after several weeks
- Presence of lumps in the mouth or neck
- Unusual sensation or numbness on the lip or the tongue
- Loosening of teeth or sockets which do not heal
- Hoarseness of voice
Oral cancer usually begins in the cells that line the lips and inside of the mouth. Oral cancer is caused due to the mutations in the genes (DNA) which control the division of the cells in the mouth. Consequently, these cells multiply abnormally and develop into a tumor mass. Over a period of time, the cancer cells can spread to the other parts of the mouth, to the neck, head, or other parts of the body.
The following factors can increase the risk of a person to develop mouth cancers:
- Use of tobacco in any form such as cigarettes, cigars, snuff, pipes, etc.
- Alcohol abuse
- Weak immune system
- Excess sun exposure
- Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection which is sexually transmitted
When to consult the doctor?
Contact your physician if the symptoms of oral cancer do not resolve in 3 weeks. This is especially important for smokers or alcohol abusers.
Diagnosis of oral cancers may be carried out by performing the following tests and procedures:
- A complete physical examination of the mouth and lips is done to check for abnormalities such as sores, white patches or areas of irritation.
- If cancer is suspected, then a biopsy of the affected tissue may be necessary. The physician would take a sample of cells from the oral sore by using a scalpel or any other surgical tool. This sample is observed under the microscope to check for the presence of cancer cells.
- Further, the stage of the cancer is identified by endoscopy in which a thin tube(endoscope) with a small, flexible camera is inserted into the throat. Through this camera, the throat and the voice box are inspected to check if the cancer has spread to other areas. Sometimes, imaging tests such as x-rays, CT scans, MRI or PET may be performed to detect if the cancer has spread to the other parts from the mouth.
The treatment of oral cancer depends on several factors which include the location of the tumor, stage of cancer, overall health and personal preferences of the patient. Treatment options include one or more of the following:
- Surgery may be performed to remove the tumor and a small portion of the surrounding healthy cells. This ensures a complete removal of cancer. Sometimes, an additional surgery may be required to reconstruct the mouth to preserve its functions and maintain its appearance. However, surgery is associated with certain risks such as bleeding, infections, and breathing problems.
- Radiation therapy alone may be performed to treat cancers in the early stages. However, it is also given after a surgery to destroy the remaining cancer cells. The adverse effects of radiation therapy include tooth decay, damage to the adjacent tissues, dry mouth, mouth sores, skin reactions, and jaw stiffness.
- Chemotherapy uses chemical substances to kill the cancer cells. Based on the stage, chemotherapy may be given either alone or in combination with other therapies. Chemotherapy can commonly cause nausea, vomiting and hair loss as side effects.
Although it is not possible to prevent oral cancers, certain measures can help to reduce the risk of developing such cancers. These include:
- Eating a healthy diet including varieties of fruits and vegetables
- Visiting the dentist for every 6 to 12 months for a general check-up of the oral cavity
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Quitting the use of tobacco in any form