Oral cancer is caused by the uncontrolled growth and reproduction of cells in some regions of the mouth. It can occur inside the cheeks, under the middle and front of the tongue, or on the tissue lining of the mouth or gum.
There are about 49,700 new cases of oral cancer each year in the United States, which accounts for around 3 percent of all cancer diagnoses. More men than women receive a diagnosis of oral cancer.
Warning signs and symptoms of oral cancer
If a person is experiencing difficulty swallowing and soreness around the throat, they should see a doctor.
The symptoms of oral cancer vary, but anyone experiencing any of the following for more than 2 weeks should see a doctor for a diagnosis:
- difficulty chewing or swallowing
- a lump or sore area in the mouth, throat or on the lips
- a white or red patch in the mouth
- difficulty moving the tongue or jaw
- unexpected weight loss
- a sore or ulcer that does not heal or bleeds
- tenderness, pain, or lumps anywhere in the mouth or on the lips
However, it is important to remember that these are not definitive signs of oral cancer, but may be caused by other conditions, such as an allergy or an infection.
What are the causes and risk factors?
Experts think that mutations in the DNA of a cell cause cancers by stimulating abnormal growth and cell death.
While it remains unclear what triggers the initial mutation in many cases, specific factors can increase the risk of oral cancer.
- Tobacco and alcohol use: Any form of tobacco use involves carcinogenic substances entering the mouth, which significantly increases the risk for oral cancer. Excessive alcohol use can also increase the risk.
- Age: The risk of oral cancer increases with age, with the average age of diagnosis being 62 years.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV): This is a sexually transmitted infection that has strong associations with several forms of oral cancer.
- Sun exposure: The sun emits rays that can burn the lips and trigger the development of oral cancers.
- Sex: Males are over twice as likely to develop oral cancer than women; however, it is unclear why.
Avoiding tobacco can reduce the risk of oral cancer.
As with most other cancers, it is not always possible to prevent oral cancer.
Some risk factors for oral cancer, such as being male or aging, are not preventable. However, some lifestyle factors that can reduce the risk of oral cancer include:
- avoiding tobacco
- consuming alcohol in moderation
- maintaining a healthful diet
- using sun cream, sun block, or a lip balm on the lips when exposed to the sun
- exercising regularly
- maintaining good oral hygiene
- regularly visiting a dentist for check-ups
Why is early detection so important?
In most forms of cancer, early diagnosis is crucial.
Treatment for oral cancer usually involves using a combination of therapies, such as giving radiation therapy and chemotherapy together, which are much more effective in the early stages. If the cancer has spread to other areas, it becomes much more difficult to isolate and treat.
If cancer has not spread to surrounding tissues, the 5-year survival rates for oral cancer of the lip, tongue, and floor of the mouth range from 75 to 93 percent. These figures fall if the cancer has spread to surrounding tissues.
Early warning signs of oral cancer include mouth sores, white or red patches, and tenderness or pain. Anyone who experiences these symptoms should see their doctor. Early diagnosis means there is a higher chance of successful treatment.
Stopping smoking and the use of tobacco products can reduce the risk of developing oral cancer.