What is oral cancer?
Oral cancer refers to the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells and tissues in the mouth. The term oral cancer is also used to describe the cancerous growth noted in the oropharynx (the initial part of the throat near the portion where the mouth ends) region.
The most common oral cancer is a cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer originates from cells known as squamous cells and hence the name.
The National Cancer Institute has estimated that about 29,000 individuals develop oral cancer in United States every year. In 2008 about 5,390 individuals would have died due to oral cancer.
The use of tobacco is the major cause of oral cancer all over the world. Men are noted to be more commonly affected than women, while the incidence of oral cancer in women is on the rise owing to an increase in smoking among women.
Oral cancer is diagnosed generally between the ages of 40 and 60 years. Early detection and prompt treatment can cure oral cancer while untreated and severe cases of oral cancer can lead to life-threatening situations.
Who is at risk of developing oral cancer?
The use of tobacco has been directly linked to the increased risk of oral cancer. Tobacco is available in different forms that can be chewed, smoked or used as a snuff. Oral cancer can develop from use of tobacco in any of these forms. Thereby, individuals who are chronic smokers or have been addicted to the use of other forms of tobacco are at an increased risk of developing oral cancer. The risk of oral cancer increases with the intensity and duration of the habit.
Alcohol consumption has also been noted to have a role in the occurrence of oral cancer. The risk increases as the amount of alcohol being consumed per week increases. However, the risk is slightly lower when compared to that with the use of tobacco alone. It has also been noted that individuals who consume alcohol also tend to smoke tobacco. In such individuals the risk is much higher due to the combined effects of alcohol and tobacco.
Exposed to sun and ultraviolet rays
Increased exposure to sun has been noted to increase the risk of developing cancers of the lip. The harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun can induce cancerous changes in the lips leading to the development of lip cancer. The risk increases in individuals who also smoke.
Cancer in the head and neck region
A personal history of cancer in the head and neck region increases the risk of developing oral cancer to a certain extent. The cancer may either spread from these regions to the oral cavity or it may develop owing to the radiation therapy used to treat the cancers of the head and neck region.
Chronic irritation to the soft tissues
Chronic irritation to the soft tissues of the mouth from improper dental fillings, sharp edges of the teeth and ill fitting dentures also have a role in the occurrence of oral cancer. Poor oral hygiene also increases the risk in the presence of other risk factors.
Some studies have linked oral cancer with decreased intake of fruits and vegetables. Others have quoted certain viruses such as human papilloma virus (HPV) may increase the risk of oral cancer. However, none of these risk factors are as potent as tobacco alone in increasing the risk of oral cancer.
What are the signs and symptoms of oral cancer?
Oral cancer generally involves the cells and tissues of the lip and tongue. It may also be noted in the regions below the tongue, the tissues of the cheek, gums and the roof of the mouth (referred to as the palate).
Oral cancer generally does not result in any symptoms in the initial stages. However there may be certain changes in the tissues lining the inner regions of the mouth that may indicate the development and progression of oral cancer. Sores on the lip or on the tongue that do not heal for a long time can indicate a developing oral cancer and can easily be noted. Similar sores or deep cracks may be noted in the tissues of the cheek or palate.
These cracks may have hard edges and persist for a long duration of time or never heal. In some instances there may be a white or red patch on the inner cheek, tongue or the palate. Pain or burning sensation may be noted in these sores or cracks as the cancer advances. Other signs that may be noted as the oral cancer progresses include bad taste in the mouth, difficulty in swallowing, decreased mouth opening, and burning sensation or pain in the tongue.
The diagnosis of oral cancer is based on the changes noted in the tissues of the mouth. Further confirmation of the oral cancer may require certain specialized tests such as biopsy of the affected regions of the mouth.
How is oral cancer treated?
Surgical removal of the cancerous tissues is the commonly advised treatment for oral cancer. The cure rate is almost about 75% when the cancer is detected at an early stage and has not spread to the neighboring tissues. The prognosis becomes poorer as the cancer progresses for longer durations. The surgical removal of wider regions of the mouth may be required if the cancer has spread to a larger extent.
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be advised in certain advanced cases wherein the oral cancer has spread to the neck region. Chemotherapy that involves the administration of anti-cancer medications may be used in combination with surgery in certain instances. Similarly radiation therapy which involves exposure to x-rays may also be used in combination with the surgical procedures.
The outcome of the treatment for oral cancer is much better when the cancer is diagnosed in its earlier stages and has not spread to the nearby areas.
How can oral cancer be prevented?
Oral cancers can be prevented effectively by discontinuing the use of tobacco and tobacco products. Complete cessation can prevent the occurrence of oral cancer. Moderating the amount of alcohol consumption is also useful in the prevention of oral cancer.
Periodic dental checkups at 6-12 month intervals can help in the early detection of cancerous changes in the mouth and a better recovery from oral cancer. Smoothening of the sharp edges of the teeth, correction of improper dental fillings and ill fitting dentures can help in reducing the irritation to the soft tissues of the mouth and prevent the occurrence of oral cancer.
Use of sun block creams or lotions to protect the lips from the harmful UV rays can prevent oral cancer associated with increased exposure to sunrays.
The tendency of oral cancer to recur is much lesser when diagnosed and treated in the earlier stages.