What is oral cancer and what’s the treatment?

What is oral cancer and what's the treatment?

Cancer isn’t a topic that people love to talk about. It can be painful or scary to discuss, as most people have known someone who has been affected directly by the disease.

As dentists, we have a view of our patients’ mouths that no one else really has, and we might notice something that is concerning and are trained to spot symptoms. Remember, however, that we are not oncologists so if you have any questions or concerns regarding oral cancer, please make an appointment with your doctor.

And since awareness can lead to early detection, we are here today to talk about oral cancer—what it is, how to prevent it and what the treatment options are.

What is oral cancer?

Cancer is the uncontrollable growth of cells that invade and cause damage to surrounding tissue. A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

Oral cancer includes:

  • cancers of the lips tongue
  • cheeks
  • floor of the mouth
  • hard and soft palate
  • sinuses
  • pharynx (throat)

Symptoms of oral cancer often appear as a persistent growth or sore somewhere in the mouth perhaps on the gums or the roof of the mouth. What you first assumed was a canker sore but it doesn’t want to heal, for example.

When talking about oral cancer, you might hear the term precancerous conditions. Precancerous conditions of the mouth means that the cells of your mouth undergo changes that make them more likely to develop into cancer. These conditions are not yet cancer, but if they aren’t treated, there is a higher risk that these abnormal conditions may one day become oral cancer.

Who gets oral cancer and why?

As most of us know, there are unhealthy lifestyle habits that can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer. But in some cases, it seems practically inexplicable why one person gets cancer over another.

To reduce your risk of oral cancer (and any cancer), there are certain things you should avoid. These include:

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars and illicit substances
  • Using smokeless tobacco products like chewing tobacco
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and binge drinking
  • Limit exposure to the sun

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Should you or someone you know be experiencing the following symptoms, please see a doctor.

  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • Numbness, swelling or tenderness in the mouth, neck or sinuses
  • Persistent sores in the mouth
  • Chronic sore throat, difficulty swallowing or constant feeling that something is caught in the back of the throat
  • Pain that feels like it is inside the ears
  • A change in the gums and teeth such as loose teeth or dentures fitting differently
  • Dramatic weight loss

Diagnosis and treatment

As part of a routine check up, your dentist will feel for any lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, face, and mouth. Your dentist will also look for any sores or discoloured tissue during your appointment and if you have any concerns, this is the right time to talk to them about it.

If there is anything concerning, a biopsy might be ordered. Should the results come back positive, further steps will be needed such as surgery and possibly radiation or chemotherapy. Oral cancer can be life threatening if not detected, diagnosed and treated early.

Remember that maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, good diet, proper rest, stress management and not engaging in harmful activities like heavy smoking and drinking is the best thing you can do for yourself.

Oral cancer is anything but pleasant, so we strongly encourage doing what you can to prevent it. This includes regular appointments with your dentist and doctor. Also, make sure to get Oral Cancer Screening.