Cancer is defined as the uncontrollable growth of cells that invade and cause damage to surrounding tissue. Oral cancer appears as a growth or sore in the mouth that does not go away. Oral cancer, which includes cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and pharynx (throat), can be life threatening if not diagnosed and treated early.
What are the symptoms of oral cancer?
The most common symptoms of oral cancer include:
- Swellings/thickenings, lumps or bumps, rough spots/crusts/eroded areas on the lips, gums or other areas inside the mouth.
- The development of velvety white, red or speckled (white and red) patches in the mouth.
- Unexplained bleeding in the mouth.
- Unexplained numbness, loss of feeling or pain/tenderness in any area of the face, mouth or neck.
- Persistent sores on the face, neck or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within two weeks.
- A lump in the neck due to an enlarged lymph node
- A soreness or feeling that something is caught in the back of the throat.
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing, speaking or moving the jaw or tongue.
- Hoarseness, chronic sore throat or change in voice.
- Ear pain.
- A change in the way your teeth or dentures fit together.
- Dramatic weight loss.
If you notice any of these changes, contact your dentist or GP immediately.
Who gets oral cancer?
According to Cancer Research UK, men face twice the risk of developing oral cancer as women, and men who are over age 50 face the greatest risk.
Risk factors for the development of oral cancer include:
- Smoking. Cigarette, cigar or pipe smokers are at much greater risk of developing oral cancers than non-smokers to develop oral cancers.
- Smokeless tobacco users. Users of dip, snuff or chewing tobacco products are more likely to develop cancers of the cheek, gums and lining of the lips.
- Excessive consumption of alcohol.
- Smoking and drinking increases your risk greatly: If you smoke more than 40 cigarettes a day and drink an average of 30 pints a week you are 38 times more likely to develop oral cancer.
- Family history of cancer.
- Excessive sun exposure, especially at a young age.
It is important to note that over 25% of all oral cancers occur in people who do not smoke and who only drink alcohol occasionally.
What is the outlook for people with oral cancer?
The average 5-year survival rate for those diagnosed with early-stage mouth cancer is 70-90%. For those with advanced mouth cancer when diagnosed only one in five live longer than five years.
How is oral cancer diagnosed?
As part of your routine dental checkup, your dentist will conduct an oral cancer screening examination. More specifically, your dentist will feel for any lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, face and oral cavity. When examining your mouth, your dentist will look for any sores or discoloured tissue as well as check for any signs and symptoms mentioned above.
Your dentist may perform an oral brush biopsy if he or she sees tissue in your mouth that looks suspicious. This test is painless and involves taking a small sample of the tissue and analysing it for abnormal cells. Alternatively, if the tissue looks more suspicious, your dentist may recommend a scalpel biopsy. This procedure usually requires local anaesthesia and may be performed by your dentist or a specialist. These tests are necessary to detect oral cancer early, before it has had a chance to progress and spread.