It may start as a small sore on your tongue that doesn't seem to go away. It could be a constant sore throat or a new hoarseness in your voice. These common, seemingly insignificant problems could actually be the first signs of oral cancer. A general term for cancer that affects the mouth, lips, cheeks, tongue, floor of the mouth, gums, the palate (roof of the mouth), sinuses, or throat, oral cancer is usually a squamous cell carcinoma, which spreads quickly. If not found and treated early, oral cancer can be life threatening.
What are the warning signs of oral cancer, what are its causes, and are you at risk?
While each case of oral cancer is different, it typically presents at least one of the following symptoms:
If you experience any of these symptoms, see you dentist or doctor immediately.
Frightening as oral cancer may be, it is largely up to you whether or not you suffer from this deadly disease. One of the main reasons people develop oral cancer is the use of tobacco products. Whether you smoke it, dip it, or chew it, tobacco increases your risk for oral cancer from six to 50 times that of a nonuser. Additionally, if you drink large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, you're more likely to suffer oral cancer. But smoking and drinking aren't the only reasons you may wind up with oral cancer.
Other risk factors for oral cancer include chronic irritation caused by rough teeth, fillings, or dentures; contracting the human papilloma virus (HPV) via oral sex; poor oral and dental hygiene; immune system-weakening medications; a family history of cancer; and excessive exposure to the sun at a young age.
And for men, the risk for oral cancer is twice that of women, and that risk is even higher after age 40.
If an exam shows a suspicious area in your mouth, your doctor or dentist will perform a gum or tongue biopsy to determine if it is cancer. Next, CT (computed tomography) scans and X-rays will be performed to see if the cancer has spread. The tumor will then be removed surgically, and the procedure will be followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Therapy may be needed to improve chewing, swallowing, or speech.
If oral cancer is detected and treated before it has spread to surrounding tissue, the cure rate is 90 percent. Unfortunately, half of the time, oral cancers have spread before being detected. Because of this, as many as 25 percent of those diagnosed with oral cancer die because they waited too long before getting treatment.
Interested in cutting down your likelihood of suffering oral cancer? Stop smoking or using tobacco products, limit your alcohol use, take care of your mouth with good oral hygiene and have dental problems corrected, and avoid multiple oral sex partners.
On top of these tips, limit sun exposure and be sure to apply sunscreen to your lips, conduct a monthly oral self-exam once a month by using a bright light and inspecting all areas of your mouth and feeling for lumps or changes, and visit your dentist regularly.