Oral cancer starts in the oral cavity, also known as the mouth. It includes the lips, the inside lining of the lips and cheeks, the teeth, gums, the tongue, the floor and roof of the mouth and the area behind your wisdom teeth. The oral cavity helps you breathe, talk, eat, chew and swallow. The oral cavity has several different types of cells and therefore there are different types of cancer that develop in the oral cavity. The treatment and outlook for survival of the different types of cancer are different.
What Increases my Risk?
A RISK FACTOR increases the likelihood that you will develop a disease. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will develop a disease. Different cancers have different risk factors. Risk factors for oral cancer include:
Tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco. 9 out of 10 people with oral cancer have used tobacco products.
Alcohol – heavy drinkers are at increased risk of developing oral cancer. 7 out of 10 people diagnosed with oral cancer are heavy drinkers. The risk is greater if a person also uses tobacco products.
Gender – traditionally men have been at greater risk than women but this is changing as more women are using tobacco and alcohol products.
Sun exposure – oral cancers affecting the lip are more common in people who have had prolonged, continued sun exposure.
Nutrition – diets low in fruits and vegetables place people at increased risk.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection – Exposure to the sexually transmitted strains of HPV will increase risk.
Immune system suppression – persons taking drugs that suppress the immune system are at greater risk for developing oral cancer.
Lichen Planus – a disease of the skin, can also affect the lining of the mouth and throat appearing as small white lines or spots.
Poor dental and oral hygiene
Leukoplakia (a white area) and Erythroplakia (a slightly red, raised area that bleeds easily) – these are often warning signs of possible oral cancers.
What Decreases my Risk?
Any factor that lowers your risk of developing a disease is known as a PROTECTIVE FACTOR. These factors do not guarantee that a disease will not develop. Different cancers have different protective factors.
Limiting tobacco and alcohol use
Limiting exposure to ultraviolet light especially the sun
Wearing properly fitted dentures
Eating a healthy diet including fruits and vegetables
Treating pre-cancerous conditions including leukoplakia and erythroplakia
Signs and Symptoms
Typical signs and symptoms of oral cancer are:
- A sore in the mouth that does not heal
- Pain in the mouth that doesn’t go away
- A persistent lump or thickening in the cheek
- A persistent white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth.
- A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat that doesn’t go away.
- Trouble chewing or swallowing
- Trouble moving the jaw or tongue
- Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth
- Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
- Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw
- Voice changes
- A lump or mass in the neck
- Unintentional weight loss
- Persistent bad breath
- Abnormal taste in the mouth * Remember these are also signs and symptoms of other medical conditions. Always consult with a doctor if you experience any of these conditions particularly if the symptoms last longer than 2 weeks.
Screening and Diagnosis
Many pre-cancers and cancers of the oral cavity can be identified at an early stage during a routine visit to a doctor, dentist or dental hygienist. It is also recommended that you look in a mirror and examine your mouth for any abnormal areas on a regular basis.
If your doctor suspects you have oral cancer he/she will order a series of tests to confirm their diagnosis. Once the diagnosis is confirmed a treatment plan will be developed. Treatment will differ depending on the area of the oral cavity affected and how advanced the cancer is.
People who have been diagnosed and treated for oral cancer may have problems with their speech and swallowing as a result of their treatment. They may also suffer disfigurement of the neck or face.