As a dentist, it is my responsibility to ensure that patients are aware of potential health risks and the signs they should look out for. One such risk is oral cancer, which affects millions of people each year around the world.
Early detection is key when it comes to the ability for successful cancer treatment, so I want to make sure all who are reading know about the warning signs of oral cancer so they can take action if necessary. I believe it is important to first educate you on Oral cancer before going into the warning signs.
Understanding Oral Cancer
Oral cancer is a type of cancer that affects the cells within the oral cavity, including the lips, tongue, cheeks, roof of the mouth (hard and soft palate), gums, tonsils, and floor of the mouth. It can also affect other parts of the head and neck area such as the salivary glands, lymph nodes, and pharynx. Due to this, most oral cancers can be referred to as oral cavity cancer, mouth cancer, head and neck cancer, and sometimes even lip cancer. There are multiple kinds of oral cancers as well, these are squamous cell carcinomas, basal cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, sarcoma, and melanoma.
Developing Oral Cancers
The process of developing oral cancer typically begins when healthy cells in the mouth become damaged due to environmental factors such as smoking or alcohol consumption. The damaged cells will then begin to mutate and grow uncontrollably until eventually form a tumor. Depending on how quickly it is caught, this tumor may spread throughout other tissues in the area which can be life-threatening.
Statistics from 2020 have shown that 9 out of 10 cases of oral cancers are linked to lifestyle choices such as smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol, more on this a little later. Over 49000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year in the United States alone with a 50% mortality rate when detected late. This makes quick detection extremely important for anyone with risk factors like smoking or drinking heavily to ensure they do not become one of these statistics.
When it comes to oral cancer, certain risk factors can increase your chances of developing the disease. These include lifestyle choices such as smoking and drinking alcohol, genetics, age, gender, and exposure to certain viruses or chemicals. Some are out of your control such as the gender risk factor. Below I have listed a few, however, the infographic above should also help you get an understanding of the other risk factors not listed below.
- Tobacco – Smoking and using chewing tobacco can increase the risk of developing oral cancer. Cigarette smoke contains more than 70 cancer-causing compounds. Quitting smoking and avoiding tobacco products can help prevent oral cancer and improve overall health. Both tobacco intakes are bad and should be avoided for general health, chewing tobacco more so for your teeth. So maybe ease up on your tobacco use if you can as tobacco use is harmful to you all around.
- Alcohol Consumption – People who drink alcohol consistently have been linked to an increased risk for many types of cancers including those in the mouth and throat area. So maybe drink alcohol in moderation to lower the chance you develop oral cancer.
- Genetics – Certain genetic mutations may make people more susceptible to developing tumors in the mouth or throat area due to their weakened immune system.
- Age & Gender – Men over 50 have a higher rate of being diagnosed with Oral Cancer than women do at any age group due to their higher prevalence of risky behaviors like smoking and drinking heavily throughout life.
- Viruses & Chemicals – Being exposed consistently over time either directly or indirectly with a certain sexually transmitted virus (HPV) or industrial chemicals (formaldehyde) can increase the likelihood that you develop cancer. Especially due to a weaker immune system, it might make treatment harder.
The Importance of Early Detection
The importance of quick detection in the early stages makes successful treatment of oral cancer much more plausible. By detecting oral cancer in its early stages, there is a greater chance of providing successful cancer treatment with minimally invasive treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. However, if the cancer is detected at a later stage, more aggressive treatments may be required which can have much more severe side effects and lower rates of success.
Screening methods for oral cancer vary depending on the individual’s risk factors and health status. Individuals with high risk should consult their doctor or dentist about potentially undergoing an oral cancer exam using a specialized oral scope to check for any suspicious lumps or lesions in the mouth. Additionally, screenings can also be done through imaging tests such as X-rays and CT scans as well as blood tests to look for biomarkers associated with oral cancer. Self-examination is also an important step we will go into more in detail on how to perform a full self-examination at the end of this article.
Warning Signs of Oral Cancer
These are just 5 of the main warning signs of oral cancers There are more but these are believed to be the main 5 that are easily noticeable when it comes to catching these specific cancer cells in their early stages
1: Persistent mouth sores or ulcers
If you have a mouth sore or ulcers in your mouth that lasts for a long time, it could be a sign of oral cancer. These can feel like bumps, blisters, or cuts on your cheeks, lips, tongue, or throat. Don’t wait more than 2 weeks to talk to your dentist if you have these sores to schedule an oral cancer exam.
2: Unexplained bleeding or numbness in the mouth
If you experience unexplained bleeding or numbness in your mouth, it could be an early indication of oral cancer. Persistent bumps, blisters, or cuts in your mouth that don’t heal within a few weeks could be the cause. If you notice any of these symptoms, inform your dentist immediately.
3: White or red patches in the mouth
If you see a white or red patch in your mouth that is not healing, it may indicate the presence of oral cancer. These patches are often the result of a pre-cancerous condition known as leukoplakia. If It is crucial to inform your dentist immediately to get proper treatment and possibly schedule an oral cancer exam.
4: Difficulty swallowing or persistent hoarseness
Experiencing difficulty swallowing or persistent hoarseness could potentially indicate you are developing oral cancer. If you encounter challenges while swallowing food or notice an unusual change in your voice, it may be an indication of the presence of bumps, blisters, or cuts in your mouth that require evaluation by a dentist.
5: Unexplained weight loss and fatigue
Unexplained weight loss and fatigue can be warning signs of developing mouth cancer. If you feel like you are losing weight without trying or feeling more tired than usual, it could mean that something is wrong. It’s important to tell your dentist or doctor right away if you experience these symptoms so they can check for bumps, blisters, or cuts in your entire mouth that need to be treated.
Notice how in every paragraph I mentioned telling your dentist. Telling your dentist is crucial in the early diagnosis of oral cancer. If so you can begin cancer treatment immediately and hopefully begin to kill cancer cells in your mouth.
Treatment Options for Oral Cancer
If you’ve received a cancer diagnosis, don’t freak out just quite yet. Treatment for oral cancer depends on the stage of the disease and can include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, and/or targeted therapy. Surgery is the most common form of treatment for an early-stage primary tumor, with radiation or chemotherapy being used in more advanced cases.
Multidisciplinary care is an important factor when it comes to treating oral cancer. It involves a team of healthcare professionals who work together to ensure that the patient’s needs are met in all aspects of their care. This type of care includes medical and dental specialists, speech pathologists, dietitians, psychotherapists, social workers, and other healthcare providers who collaborate as a team to develop an individualized treatment plan for each patient.
In addition to traditional treatments for oral cancer, there are emerging therapies that show promise in helping to slow down or even reverse the progression of this cancer. One such example is immunotherapy, which uses drugs that help the body recognize and fight off oral cancer more effectively. Another promising option is gene therapy, which involves introducing genes into cells that can inhibit the growth of certain types of cancers. A big helpful player in emerging therapies is the Oral Cancer Foundation. They have been funding medical research in the field of oral cancer since 1999.
National Cancer Institute Research and Recommendations
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a leader in the research, prevention, and treatment of oral cancers. The NCI has developed several initiatives to increase awareness of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer and improve early detection.
The National Cancer Institute recommends that if you have any bumps, blisters, or cuts inside your mouth that don’t go away after a couple of weeks, tell your dentist right away. If you also see white or red patches in the mouth, feel like you can’t swallow food properly, or are losing weight without trying and feeling more tired than usual, it is important to tell your dentist or doctor right away. Exactly what we mentioned in the warning signs for these mouth cancers. Treatment for oral cancer may include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, and/or targeted therapy. It is important to get multidisciplinary care which means a team of healthcare professionals working together to help with treatment. Newer treatments such as immunotherapy and gene therapy may also be used to slow down the growth of mouth cancer.
The National Institute has done a lot of research on mouth cancer. Including the early signs and symptoms of mouth cancer. NCI is constantly looking into new treatments like immunotherapy and gene therapy to help fight off cancer cells in the mouth.
Although it is not a substitute for professional medical care, you can do a self-examination to look for any changes in your mouth. Doing so will increase your chances of detecting oral cancer early, however, it is no replacement for a routine dental exam.
- Stand in front of a mirror and begin the examination by looking for any lumps, swelling, or possible changes in skin tone around your mouth and neck area.
- Move onto the inside of your mouth now and begin looking for sores, white/red spots, or anything strange textures and color changes. Do this for all parts of the interior mouth such as cheeks, gums, tongue, the roof of your mouth, and the back of the throat. If you have trouble seeing you can always use a flashlight or ask a house member to look for you utilizing a flashlight.
- Next, use your finger to check the inside of your mouth and feel around for any bumps or lumps that you may have missed with the sight of eye check previously.
- You will also want to look around the sides and bottom of your tongue for any abnormalities such as bumps, ulcers, and any color looking “off”.
You can repeat this examination once a month and since you will be doing this monthly you should get a feel for what your mouth should look and feel like. If you ever notice any changes, sweet spots, or bumps, don’t hesitate to contact your dentist and get it checked.
The Bottom Line
Oral cancer is a serious health issue, but it can be detected and treated early with the right knowledge. If you are diagnosed don’t freak out as you can treat oral cancer. The National Cancer Institute has done extensive research on this topic to spread awareness of signs and symptoms as well as provide newer treatments such as immunotherapy or gene therapy. You must do your self-examination every month to check for any abnormalities in your mouth, so if anything changes make sure you contact your dentist right away. With your help, we can spread the word about different oral cancers to the masses. Thank you for taking the time to learn more about oral cancer prevention and treatment! Stay safe!