Oral cancer (also known as mouth cancer) occurs when cells in the tissues of the mouth or throat divide without control or order, forming abnormal growths. Oral cancer can be deadly if not treated promptly.
Oral cancer usually begins in the tissues that make up the lips, tongue, or cheek lining, but it also can affect the gums, the floor or the roof of the mouth, or the salivary glands * . Long-term use of tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and pipes, is a substantial risk factor for oral cancer, as is heavy alcohol use. Risk is further increased if these two behaviors are combined. Other risk factors include human papillomavirus (HPV) * infection, exposure of the lips to the sun, and a prior history of oral cancer.
Many oral cancers begin as white or red patches in the mouth. The white patches are called leukoplakia (loo-ko-PLAY-kee-uh), and the red patches are known as erythroplakia (e-rith-row-PLAY-kee-uh). Other symptoms may include the following:
It is important that a person seek medical treatment if they experience any of these symptoms that last for more than two weeks.
Most dentists check for signs of oral cancer as part of a regular dental examination. Early detection is the key to treating it successfully. Otherwise, it can spread throughout the mouth, throat, neck, and even to distant parts of the body through the lymphatic system * . If oral cancer is not discovered until late in its development, only around 57 percent of sufferers are still alive five years after being diagnosed. When dentists or doctors find a suspicious-looking area in the mouth, they may order a biopsy. During this procedure, a surgeon removes part or all of the suspect tissue. Examination under a microscope determines whether cancer cells are present. Once oral cancer is diagnosed, doctors then need to find out whether the cancer has spread.
The first course of treatment is to remove the tumor and any cancerous tissue in the mouth. If there is evidence that the cancer has spread, the surgeon may remove lymph nodes * in the neck as well as part or all of the tongue, cheek, or jaw.
Doctors may also order radiation * therapy, either before the surgery to shrink the tumors, or afterward to destroy any remaining cancer cells. In some cases, surgeons may place tiny “seeds” containing radioactive material directly into or near the tumor. Generally, this implant is left in place for several days, and the patient stays in the hospital.
Chemotherapy is another possible treatment for oral cancer, especially when it has spread beyond the mouth. It involves taking anticancer drugs by injection or in pill form.
People who are treated for large or widely spread oral tumors often experience permanent changes that are challenging to deal with, both emotionally and physically. If a person loses part of his or her jaw, tongue, cheek, or palate (the roof of the mouth), reconstructive and plastic surgery may be necessary. Some people need to be fitted with an artificial dental or facial part called a prosthesis * . Both of these procedures can change a person's appearance permanently. Some treatments for oral cancer can lead to difficulty chewing and swallowing, and loss of the sense of taste is also possible.
Many patients have trouble speaking after losing part of their mouth or tongue. Speech therapists work with them both during and after their hospital stay to help them get back to speaking as normally as possible. Persons who have had oral cancer should receive regular checkups to make sure the cancer has not recurred. This is especially important for those who continue to use tobacco or alcohol products after treatment.
People can prevent oral cancer by not using spit tobacco or smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, or by quitting if they already do. Alcohol use should be moderated, especially if the person is also a smoker. Sexually active persons should take precautions to avoid getting HPV.
See also Cancer: Overview • Tobacco-Related Diseases: Overview
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* salivary glands (SAL-i-var-ee) are the three pairs of glands that produce the liquid called saliva, which aids in the digestion of food.
* human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease that affects both men and women. HPV often goes away without causing any damage, but it can lead to medical issues such as genital warts or cancer.
* lymphatic system (lim-FAH tik) is the system that contains lymph nodes and a network of channels that carry fluid and cells of the immune system through the body.
* lymph nodes (LIMF) are small, bean-shaped masses of tissue containing immune system cells that fight harmful microorganisms. Lymph nodes may swell during infections.
* radiation is energy that is transmitted in the form of rays, waves, or particles. Only high-energy radiation, such as that found in x-rays and the sun's ultraviolet rays, has been proven to cause human cancer.
* prosthesis (pros-THEE-sis) is an artificial substitute for a missing body part. It can be used for appearance only or to replace the function of the missing part (as with a prosthetic leg).