Cancer, clinically known as malignancy is often described as the atypical and uncontrollable growth of cells that proliferate quickly and cause irreversible damage to the surrounding cells, inadvertently rendering the surrounding cells kaput or inept. Oral cancer is cancer that appears as an abnormal growth in the linings of the lip, cheek, mouth, or upper throat. Usually detected in men over the age of 40, oral and throat cancer account for about 3% of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. annually. Values from the World Health Organization substantiate about 657,000 new cases of oral and pharyngeal cancers each year, and more than 330,000 accompanied fatalities.
Where can oral cancer appear?
According to the National Cancer Institute, oral cancer may occur in one of the two evident places, the oral cavity, or the oropharynx (throat).
In the oral cavity, cancer may develop in any of these tissues in the oral cavity:
- Front two-thirds of the tongue
- Gingiva or gums
- Buccal mucosa or the lining of the inside of cheeks
- Floor of the mouth under the tongue
- Hard palate or the front of the roof of the mouth
- Retromolar trigone or the area behind the wisdom teeth
Pharyngeal cancer can form in any of these tissues in the pharynx (throat):
- Nasopharynx (the upper part of the throat behind the nose)
- Oropharynx that includes:
- Middle of the throat behind the mouth
- Back one-third of the tongue
- Soft palate or the back part of the mouth roof including the uvula
- Side and back walls of the throat
- Hypopharynx (bottom part of the throat)
Out of all the oral cancers, two-thirds develop in the oral cavity with only about one-third occurring in the oropharynx and throat tissue.
Oral cancer screening and why it’s important
An oral cancer screening is a visual and physical examination of the oral cavity and the connected tissues, including the throat. It is conducted before the patient exhibits any symptoms of oral cancer. With the help of sophisticated tests, your dentist may be able to find cancer at an early stage and treat it way before it begins to spread.
- Visual Examination
When a dentist evaluates you for potential oral cancer signs and symptoms, they assess the face, neck, lips, inside of the nose, and the oral cavity as prime areas for oral cancer occurrence. The Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF) states that a dentist looks for asymmetries or deformities in the form of swellings, bumps, patches of color, or ulcerations to validate the presence of oral cancer. A tongue depressor may be used to hold down the tongue to look at the back of the mouth. Mirrors and transillumination with direct lights may be utilized to better be able to visualize the abnormalities.
- Physical Examination
A visual examination is followed by a physical exam where the dentist palpates the areas in the head and neck region to feel for unusual nodules or masses. A vindictive sign of oral cancer is immobility in the oral tissues, whereby unline normally mobile oral tissues, they will be almost ‘frozen’ or held in place. Oral cancer symptoms can be painful but a painless swelling can be a sign of problems a dime a dozen. It is thus important that you regularly visit the dentist to help discover oddities in your oral cavity earlier.
If your dentist successfully finds any tumors, growths, or suspicious lesions, they may perform a tissue biopsy. A biopsy is a painless test that collects a piece of tissue so that it can be examined for cancerous cells.
In addition, your dentist may also conduct the following tests:
- X-rays: to see if cancer cells have spread to your jaw, chest, or lungs
- CT scan: to reveal any tumors in your mouth, throat, neck, lungs, or elsewhere in your body
- PET scan: to determine if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and other organs
- MRI scan: to determine the extent or stage of the cancer
- Endoscopy: to examine the nasal passages, sinuses, inner throat, windpipe, and trachea
Symptoms to look out for
Oral cancer symptoms are much like symptoms for other oral ailments. However, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America informs that it may be helpful if you keep a lookout for some of these symptoms that can distinguish a non-emergency dental mishap from critical oral cancer symptoms.
- Persistent mouth sores that do not heal
- Persistent mouth pain
- A lump or thickening in the cheek
- A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
- A sore throat or persistent feeling of something caught in the throat
- Difficulty swallowing or chewing
- Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
- Numbness of the tongue and other areas of the mouth
- Loosening of the teeth and pain
- Voice changes
- Persistent bad breath
Are you at risk of oral cancer?
One American succumbs to oral cancer every hour of every day, says the National Cancer Institute. Research has identified a number of strong factors that increase the risk of an individual developing oral cancer. With anecdotal evidence to support the research, some of the common risk factors for oral cancer are:
- Smoking: People who smoke are six times more likely to develop oral and throat cancer. Eight in ten cancer patients are reported to be smokers.
- Smokeless tobacco: Users of dip, snuff, or chewing tobacco products are estimated to be 50 times more likely to develop cancers of the cheek, gums, and inner surface linings of the lips.
- Excessive alcohol consumption: Studies have demonstrated that approximately 80% of people diagnosed with oral cancer consume more than 21 drinks weekly.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV): Human papillomavirus, a sexually-transmitted infection, has also been associated with throat cancers or at the back of the mouth. They usually occur in the throat at the base of the tongue and in the folds of the tonsils making them difficult to detect.
- Genetic disorders: Some inherited genetic mutations that cause different syndromes in the body may predispose the individual with a higher risk of oral cancer.
Oral cancer is a rapidly-progressing dental disease and will require a long-standing period of palliative care to overcome. It is best that you do your best to prevent oral cancer from developing in the first place by making sure you do not indulge in activities that threaten your oral and overall health. It is also crucial to visit your dentist as regularly as possible to get evaluated for oral cancer. If you have not gotten an oral cancer screening yet, book an appointment now to save you and your loved ones from the pain and grief associated with such a vile and dreadful disease.