Oral cancer is the sixth most common cancer, and accounts for about 3.6 percent of all cancers diagnosed. The vast majority of oral cancers occur in people older than 45, with men being twice as likely as women to develop the disease.
Oral cancer accounts for roughly 3% of all cancer-caused deaths. Of all major cancers, oral cancer has the worst five-year survival rate, being approximately 54%. Because oral cancer is usually not diagnosed in its early stages, less than half of all oral cancer patients are cured.
The tongue is the most frequent source of cancers in the mouth, followed by the floor of the mouth, soft palate tissues in the back of the tongue, lips, and finally, the gums.
When tobacco use and alcohol use are combined, the risk of oral cancer increases 15 fold. Sun exposure also increases the risk. It is possible there is a genetic link as well.
If left untreated or not diagnosed early, oral cancer can spread, which may lead to chronic pain, loss of function, and irreparable facial and oral disfigurement following surgery. Death may follow.
Red, white or discoloured lesions, patches or lumps in or around the mouth are an early sign of oral cancer, which is typically painless in its early stages. As the cancer spreads, the lesions or lumps become noticeably painful.
Some symptoms of oral cancer are:
- A mouth sore that lasts longer than two weeks.
- A swelling, growth or lump anywhere in your mouth or neck.
- White or red patches in the mouth or on the lips.
- Repeated bleeding from the mouth or throat.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Persistent hoarseness.
If oral cancer is suspected, a biopsy of a suspicious lesion is taken in order to confirm the diagnosis. Tumours are typically removed surgically and may result in facial disfiguration.
Research suggests that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables may safeguard against oral cancer. Because successful treatment and rehabilitation are dependent on early detection, it is extremely important to see your dentist for an oral cancer screening and regular checkup at least every six months if you are over 45. Survival rates greatly increase the earlier oral cancer is discovered and treated.
Oral care during cancer treatment
Many people who are in the midst of cancer therapy are unaware of the critical importance of maintaining their oral health.
Certain complications such as dry mouth, sensitive oral cavity lesions, hypersensitive teeth, rapid tooth decay, and difficulty swallowing afflict many people who receive radiation therapy of the head and neck area.
Chemotherapy can also have significant effects on your mouth. If you are undergoing cancer therapy, maintain good oral hygiene habits to not only keep your mouth, teeth, and gums healthy, but also to help stop the spread of bacteria and germs that could further compromise your already weakened immune system.
Gently brush your teeth twice a day unless your dentist recommends otherwise. If you develop a condition called dry mouth, your dentist may recommend a saliva replacement, an artificial saliva that is available over-the-counter at pharmacies.
To perform the oral cancer self examination, follow these steps:
In a mirror, look at and feel your:
- Cheek – use your fingers to pull out your cheek so you can see inside. Look for red, white, or dark patches. Put your index finger on the inside of your cheek and your thumb on the outside. Gently squeeze and roll your cheek between your fingers to check for any lumps or areas of tenderness. Repeat this on the other cheek.
- Face – examine the skin on your face. Look for any colour or size changes, sores, moles, or growths.
- Floor of the mouth and tongue – Stick out your tongue and look at the top surface for colour and texture. Gently pull your tongue forward to look at one side first and then the other. Look for any swellings or colour changes. Examine the underside of your tongue by placing the tip of the tongue on the roof of your mouth. Look at the floor of your mouth and the underside of your tongue for colour changes that are very different from what is normal. Gently press your finger along the underside of your tongue to feel for any lumps or swelling.
- Head and neck – look at your face and neck in a mirror. Both sides should be fairly symmetrical. Identify any lumps, bumps, or swellings that are only on one side of your face.
- Lips – pull your lower lip down and look inside for any sores or colour changes. Use your thumb and forefinger to feel the lip for lumps, bumps, or changes in texture. Repeat this on your upper lip.
- Neck – press along the sides and front of the neck and check for tenderness or lumps.
- Roof of the mouth – tilt your head back and open your mouth wide to see it there are any lumps or if the colour is different than usual. Run your finger on the roof to feel for lumps.