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Oral cancer: Overview, causes, symptoms and treatment

Last updated on : 16 May, 2024

Read time : 7 min

What is Oral cancer?

Oral cancer is the medical term for cancer that develops in the mouth or throat. It’s part of a bigger category of tumours known as head and neck cancers. Most form in the squamous cells located in your mouth, tongue, and lips.

Mouth cancer affects more than twice as many males as women and is most common in persons over the age of 40. Tobacco use, alcohol consumption (or both), or infection with the human papillomavirus are all linked to mouth cancer (HPV).

Cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks and gums are all examples of oral cancers. It can be lethal if not diagnosed and treated early enough.

Mouth cancer is significantly easier for doctors to treat if found early. However, the majority of people receive a diagnosis when their ailment has progressed beyond the point where it can be properly treated. You’ll have a much better chance of getting an early diagnosis if you visit your dentist or doctor on a regular basis and learn how to spot suspicious changes for further oral cancer treatment.

Oral cancer stages

Mouth cancer is divided into four phases.

Stage 1: The tumour is less than 2 centimetres (cm) in diameter and has not spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage 2: Despite its size, the tumour has not spread to any lymph nodes.

Stage 3: The tumour is either greater than 4 cm and has not spread to the lymph nodes, or it is any size and has spread to one lymph node but not to the rest of the human body.

Stage 4: Tumors of any size have expanded to surrounding tissues, lymph nodes, or other parts of the body, and cancer cells have spread to nearby tissues, lymph nodes, or other parts of the body.

Also Read-Everything to know about colon cancer symptoms, causes and treatment

Oral cancer causes and Risk factors

1. Smoking

Mouth cancer is six times more common in smokers of cigarettes, cigars, or pipes than in nonsmokers.

2. Smokeless tobacco use

Smokers are 50 times more likely to develop cancers of the cheek, gum, and lip lining than non-smokers.

3. Alcoholism 

Drinkers are six times more likely than non-drinkers to develop mouth cancer. Using smoke and alcohol at the same time enhances your chances much more.

  • Family history
  • Excessive sun exposure, especially when children are small. Lip cancer is caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)

A number of HPV strains are responsible for oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC). Almost everyone who engages in sexual activity will contract HPV at some point in their life. Oral sex is causing a growing number of otherwise healthy men under 50 to get malignancies in the back of their mouths and throats due to a specific strain of this virus. The greater your risk, the more persons you and your partners have sex with.

4. Age

Oral cancer causes can take a long time to develop. After the age of 55, the majority of people discover they have it. However, malignancies linked to HPV are becoming increasingly common in younger men.

5. Gender

Among men, oral cancer is at least twice as prevalent as among women. It could be because men consume more alcohol and smoke than women.

6. Poor dietary habits 

Oral cancer has been linked to a lack of vegetables and fruits, according to studies.

Mouth cancer symptoms

The following are the most prevalent mouth cancer symptoms:

  • Inflammation or thickening of the lips and mouth, as well as lumps or bumps and rough spots/crusts/or eroded areas inside the mouth.
  • A common feature of the mouth is the presence of white, red, or speckled white and red patches.
  • Mouth bleeds for no apparent reason
  • Unknown numbness, lack of sensation, or pain/tenderness in the face, mouth, or neck.
  • Itching and redness on the face and neck, and wounds that don’t heal in two weeks or less.
  • A pulsating sensation or the feeling that something is lodged in the back of the neck.
  • Moving the jaw or tongue, or chewing, swallowing, or speaking are all tough processes.
  • You can tell something’s amiss if you have a recurrent sore throat or a change in your voice.
  • Earache
  • Your jaw may swell or hurt. If you have dentures, you may find them uncomfortable or difficult to put in.
  • Your teeth or dentures no longer fit together the same way they used to.
  • Weight loss 

Diagnosis for oral cancer

A physical examination will be performed in mouth cancer treatment by your doctor or dentist. There will be a comprehensive examination of the lymph nodes in your neck as well as other parts of your mouth during oral cancer treatment. If your doctor is unable to determine why you are experiencing mouth cancer symptoms, you may be sent to an ENT specialist.

If your doctor discovers any tumours, growths, or worrisome lesions, a brush biopsy or a tissue biopsy will be conducted. It is a painless process that involves swabbing the tumour cells onto a slide using a brush. When a sample of tissue is taken and examined under a microscope for cancerous cells, the technique is known as a tissue biopsy.

Your doctor may also conduct one or more of the following tests:

X-rays: If cancer cells have spread to the jaw, chest, or lungs, X-rays can be performed to find out.

CT scan to look for tumours in your mouth, throat, neck, lungs, or other parts of your body

PET scan to see if cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other organs.

MRI scan to obtain a more accurate image of the head and neck and to evaluate the cancer’s size or stage

Endoscopy– an examination of the nasal passages, sinuses, inner throat, windpipe, and trachea via an endoscope

Oral cancer treatment

1. Surgery

  • Surgery to remove the tumour: To verify that all cancer cells have been eliminated, your surgeon may cut away the tumour and a margin of healthy tissue surrounding it. Minor surgery can be used to eliminate smaller malignancies. Larger tumours may necessitate more intensive surgery in oral cancer treatment.
  • Surgery to remove cancer from the neck that has spread: Your surgeon may propose removing lymph nodes and related tissue in your neck if cancer cells have progressed to the lymph nodes in your neck or if there’s a significant danger of this happening due to the size or depth of your malignancy (neck dissection).
  • Mouth reconstruction surgery: After your cancer has been removed, your surgeon may offer reconstructive surgery to restore your mouth so you can speak and eat again. Dental implants can also be used to replace missing teeth in mouth cancer treatment.

2. Radiation therapy 

Another alternative to oral cancer treatment is radiation therapy. A doctor will focus radiation beams at the tumour once or twice a day, five days a week, for two to eight weeks. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are frequently used in advanced phases of mouth cancer treatment.

3. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a drug-based oral cancer treatment that kills cancer cells. The medication can be administered orally or via an intravenous (IV) line. The majority of patients receive chemotherapy as an outpatient, while some do require hospitalisation.

4. Targeted therapy

Another type of mouth cancer treatment is targeted therapy. It can be used to treat cancer in both early and advanced oral cancer stages. Targeted therapy drugs bind to specific proteins in cancer cells, preventing them from developing.

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Our healthcare experts have carefully reviewed and compiled the information presented here to ensure accuracy and trustworthiness. It is important to note that this information serves as a general overview of the topic and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, prevent, or cure any health problem. This page does not establish a doctor-patient relationship, nor does it replace the advice or consultation of a registered medical practitioner. We recommend seeking guidance from your registered medical practitioner for any questions or concerns regarding your medical condition.


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