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Oral Cancer: Detection, Treatment, and Prevention

Learn about the risk factors, symptoms & proactive measures for better oral health for those with oral cancer. Find out how a local dentist can help.
A dentist checking her patient's mouth for oral cancer.

Oral cancer (also known as mouth cancer) is a condition that can affect the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and throat. It is a type of head and neck cancer, and like other cancers, it involves the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. Each year, more than 54, 000 US citizens will receive a diagnosis of oral cancer.

This article aims to provide valuable information about oral cancer, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and preventive measures.

What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer refers to the growth of malignant cells in the oral cavity, which includes the lips, tongue, gums, and other areas within the mouth. It can also occur in the oropharynx—the back of the throat. If left untreated, oral and oropharyngeal cancer can be life-threatening, making early detection crucial for successful treatment.

What Causes Oral Cancer?

The exact cause of oral and oropharyngeal cancers are not always clear, but several oral cancer risk factors have been identified. They include the following:

  • Tobacco Use: According to the National Cancer Institute, tobacco use is the most common cause of oral cancer. Chewing tobacco, smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes all increase the risk of developing oral cancer.
  • Excessive Alcohol Consumption: Heavy and frequent alcohol consumption can contribute to the development of oral cancer, especially when combined with tobacco use.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection: Certain strains of HPV are associated with an increased risk of developing oral cancer.
  • Poor Oral Hygiene: Neglecting oral health and failing to undergo regular dental check-ups with a general dentist may increase the risk of oral cancer.
  • Poor Nutrition: A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables may contribute to developing oral cancer.
  • Family History: Having a family history of oral cancer or other head and neck cancers can elevate the risk.
  • Excessive Sun Exposure: Prolonged exposure to sunlight without protection can increase the risk of lip cancer.
  • Age: Oral cancer is more common in individuals over 55.
  • Gender: Men are more prone to oral cancer than women.

What Are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?

Early detection of oral cancer is vital for successful treatment. It’s best to be on the lookout for warning signs of oral cancer. Common oral cancer symptoms include:

  • Persistent mouth sores: Sores in the mouth that do not heal within two weeks.
  • Red or white patches: Red or white patches on the gums, tongue, or other areas within the mouth.
  • Persistent sore throat: A sore throat that does not improve with time.
  • Difficulty swallowing: Trouble in swallowing or a sensation of something being stuck in the throat.
  • Unexplained weight loss: Significant weight loss without any apparent cause.
  • Pain or numbness: Pain, tenderness, or numbness in the mouth, lips, or face.
  • Persistent bad breath: Chronic bad breath that doesn’t improve with oral hygiene practices.
  • Changes in voice: Hoarseness or changes in the voice.

How Is Oral Cancer Diagnosed?

If you experience any of the above symptoms or are at high risk for oral cavity cancer, your dentist or dental professional may perform several tests to diagnose the condition. These tests may include the following:

  • Physical Examination: The doctor will examine your mouth, throat, and neck for any abnormalities.
  • Biopsy: A small tissue sample is taken from the suspicious area and examined under a microscope to determine if cancer cells are present.
  • Endoscopy: A thin, flexible tube with a camera (endoscope) may be used to inspect the throat and vocal cords.
  • Imaging Tests: X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, or PET scans can help determine the extent of the cancer and if it has spread to other areas.

How to Treat Oral Cancer

Oral cancer treatment depends on its stage, size, and location. Common treatment options include:

  • Oral Surgery: Surgical removal of the tumor and surrounding tissues is often the primary treatment for localized oral cancer.
  • Radiation Therapy: High-energy rays are used to target and destroy cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy: Anti-cancer drugs are used to kill cancer cells or stop their growth.
  • Targeted Therapy: Drugs specifically target certain molecules involved in cancer growth.
  • Immunotherapy: Boosting the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells.
  • Combination Therapy: A combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy may be used for advanced cases.

How to Prevent Oral Cancer

Taking steps to reduce risk factors can help prevent oral cancer. These beneficial steps could include the following:

  1. Avoid tobacco use: Quit smoking and avoid chewing tobacco products.
  2. Limit alcohol consumption: Moderation is key when it comes to alcohol consumption.
  3. Practice good oral hygiene: Brush and floss regularly and visit your dentist for routine check-ups.
  4. Eat a healthy diet: Consume a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
  5. Use sun protection: Wear lip balm with SPF when exposed to sunlight for extended periods.
  6. Get vaccinated: HPV vaccination may reduce the risk of certain oral cancers.

The Outlook for Those with Oral Cancer

Detecting oral cancer early and timely treatment can significantly improve the outlook for individuals with oral cancer. Regular dental check-ups can aid in detecting oral cancer in its early stages, increasing the chances of successful treatment. Patients diagnosed and treated in the early stages have a higher likelihood of complete recovery.

Find a Local Dentist for Oral Cancer Help

Oral cancer is a serious condition that requires prompt attention. Knowing the risk factors, symptoms, and preventive measures can help individuals take proactive steps to protect their oral health.

If you suspect any signs of oral cancer, find a local dental professional and get medical attention immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment. Remember, early detection can save lives!