Oral cancer refers to the cancer that develops in any of the parts that make up the mouth (oral cavity). It is a pathologic process which begins with an asymptomatic stage during which the usual cancer signs may not be readily noticeable. This makes the oral cancer examinations performed by the dental surgeon critically important. It is one of several types of cancers grouped in a category called head and neck cancers. Oral cancers can be of varied histologic types. The most common type of oral cancer is the malignant squamous cell carcinoma.
Oral cancer can occur in many different places in the oral cavity and maxillofacial region:
- Inner lining of the cheeks
- Roof of the mouth
- Floor of the mouth (under the tongue)
- Salivary Glands
- Oropharyngeal Region (throat)
Any noticeable abnormalities in the tongue, gums, mouth or surrounding area should be evaluated as quickly as possible.
Signs and symptoms of oral cancer may include:
• A lip or mouth sore that doesn’t heal
• A white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
• Loose teeth
• A growth or lump inside your mouth
• Mouth pain
• Ear pain
• Difficult or painful swallowing
Make an appointment with your doctor or dentist if you have any of these persistent signs and symptoms that bother you and last more than two weeks.
Oral cancers form when cells in the mouth develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The mutation changes tell the cells to continue growing and dividing when healthy cells would die. The accumulating abnormal mouth cancer cells can form a tumour. With time they may spread inside the mouth and on to other areas of the head and neck or other parts of the body. It most commonly begins in the flat, thin cells (squamous cells) that line the lips and the inside of the mouth.
It’s not clear what causes the mutations in squamous cells that lead to mouth cancer. But doctors have identified factors that may increase the risk of mouth cancer.
Factors that can increase the risk of oral cancer include:
- Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco.
- Heavy alcohol use.
- Excessive sun exposure to your lips
- A sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV)
- A weakened immune system
There’s no proven way to prevent mouth cancer. However, you can reduce your risk of mouth cancer if you:
- Stop using tobacco — Using tobacco, whether smoked or chewed, exposes the cells in your mouth to dangerous cancer-causing chemicals.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation —Chronic excessive alcohol use can irritate the cells in your mouth, making them vulnerable to mouth cancer.
- See your dentist regularly.
When oral cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stages, treatment is generally very effective.