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Oral Cancer


Oral cancer may occur on the lips, tongue, mouth, throat, gums and salivary glands. Every year, about 29,000 Americans discover they have oral cancer.

As part of a collection of cancers called head and neck cancers, oral cancer can grow in any component of the oral cavity. Typically, oral cancers originate in the tongue and at the bottom of the mouth.

Most oral cancers stem from flat cells called squamous cells. Squamous cells conceal the exteriors of the tongue, lips and mouth.

A lymph—a watery fluid—carries cancer cells into the lymphatic system, enabling the cancer cells to emerge near the lymph nodes in the neck.

Cancer cells then spread to other areas of the neck, and can then spread to the lungs and other parts of the body.

Who Gets Oral Cancer?

While doctors are not always able to explain why someone develops oral cancer over someone else, there are some risk factors that show how some are more likely than others to develop it.


1)      Sun Exposure: You can develop cancer on the lips by prolonged exposure to the sun. Use a lip balm with sunscreen to reduce the risk of oral cancer.

2)      Smoking: Smoking anything with tobacco such as cigarettes and cigars or even just chewing tobacco increases your chances of developing oral cancer. If you heavily drink alcohol as well as smoke, your chances increase even more. Three out of four oral cancer cases occur in people who smoke and drink alcohol.

3)      Drinking Alcohol: If you drink, your chances of developing oral cancer increase. The more you drink, the higher your chances of developing oral cancer.

4)      A History of Neck and Head Cancer: If someone has a medical history of having head and neck cancer, their chances for developing another head and neck cancer increase.


Signs of Oral Cancer


Consider the following possible signs of oral cancer. Keep in mind that they are not all-inclusive and they do not necessarily mean you have oral cancer. Consulting your dental professional is ideal when determining whether or not you have oral cancer.


1)      Sore throat

2)      Pain in the mouth

3)      Bumps in the mouth and neck

4)      Pain in the ear

5)      Bleeding in the gums, cheeks or on the tongue

6)      Numb feelings in the mouth or along the jaw line

7)      White, red or a combination of white and red patches inside the mouth or on the lips

8)      Difficulty swallowing

9)      Loose teeth




If you suspect that you have oral cancer and notice possible signs of oral cancer, consult with your dental professional as soon as you can. Your dentist or doctor will assess your mouth and throat for lumps, red or white patched or other abnormalities. Your lips, throat, tongue, and lymph nodes in your neck are thoroughly checked in this examination.

If an evaluation reveals some sort of abnormality, then a small portion of tissue may be extracted. A biopsy—looking for cancer cells in the tissue—is then performed using local or general anesthesia. A pathologist then proceeds to examine the tissue under a microscope to scout for cancer cells.


Common Questions to Ask your Dentist or Doctor


1)      Is a biopsy required and why?

2)      How long will the procedure last?

3)      Will I be under anesthetics?

4)      If there are any risks, what are they?

5)      When will I receive the results?

6)      After the biopsy, how do I take care of the biopsy site?


For a proper diagnosis of oral cancer, you must see your dentist or doctor. If needed, your dentist may then refer you to an oncologist. Once you have been thoroughly assessed for oral cancer, your dentist or doctor must determine the stage and grade of the cancer. To determine this, your doctor may administer more examinations such as x-rays, MRI scans, ultrasounds or CT scans.

Based on the diagnosis and test results, your dentist or doctor will formulate a treatment plan.


Treating oral cancer requires the use of one of these three methods—radiation therapy, chemotherapy or cancer.




Surgery depends on the stage and grade of the cancer. Surgery may consist of removing tumors in the bone tissue, the mouth or the jaw, or other parts of the body where the tumor may have spread.

After surgery, you may feel some discomfort or feel fatigued. Sometimes, surgery causes your face to swell but this vanishes within a few weeks. If lymph nodes have been removed in surgery, however, swelling lasts longer.

Everyone’s case varies so the time needed to recover after surgery differs for each person.

If a patient has to undergo extensive surgery, he or she could experience speech difficulty and/or appearance changes. To treat these changes, plastic surgery and speech pathology can be administered to enhance the patient’s appearance and/or speech problems.


Radiation Therapy


Radiation is used to eliminate remaining cancer that has not been removed during surgery. Most patients that undergo radiation therapy in the neck and head area experience side effects. Before oral cancer treatment, it’s best to see a dentist about two weeks prior to treatment. That way, the mouth is prepared for treatment.

Depending on the intensity of the radiation, side effects vary in content and degree. Radiation therapy has been shown to develop some or all the following side effects:


1)      Tooth decay

2)      Infection

3)      Dry mouth

4)      Stiff jaw

5)      Sore gums

6)      Bleeding gums

7)      Sore mouth or throat

8)      Thyroid changes

9)      Skin changes

10)  Prolonged healing after dental care

11)  Problems with dentures

12)  Voice changes

Side effects caused by radiation therapy can most often be treated by your doctor. It’s important to communicate with your doctor about how you feel before, during and after oral cancer treatment.



Like radiation therapy, chemotherapy can be used to eliminate remaining cancer that was not removed through surgery.

Chemotherapy can cause some of the same side effects as radiation therapy. There are some anticancer drugs that cause bleeding in the mouth. Depending on the amount and type of anticancer a patient uses, the problems associated with anticancer drugs varies. Typically, anticancer drugs affect rapidly-dividing cells.


1)      Chemotherapy can affect the cells in a patient’s hair roots leading to hair loss. While the hair grows back, it can sometimes grow back in a different texture or even color.

2)      Chemotherapy can affect the cells in a patient’s digestive tract, resulting in poor appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and nausea.

3)      Chemotherapy can affect your blood cells, hindering their ability to carry oxygen to your body, fight infections and helping your blood to clot. Blood cell changes can cause more infection and feelings of weakness and fatigue.


Who Treats Oral Cancer?


You may be referred to a specialist by your doctor. Specialists that treat oral cancer include:


1)      Medical Oncologists

2)      Plastic Surgeons

3)      Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons

4)      Radiation Oncologists

5)      Otolaryngologists (doctors that specialize in the ear, nose and throat)

How to Prevent Oral Cancer

If you experience irritation in the gums, tongue or mouth such as swelling, you may face a greater risk of developing oral cancer. Sometimes, possible signs of oral cancer actually turn out to be other medical problems. Consult with a doctor and a dentist to receive a thorough examination of your oral cavity.

Professionals encourage people to perform self-examinations of their gums, tongue, mouth and cheeks regularly. However, it is still important to visit your dentist at least twice a year. Incorporating a healthy and regular dental care routine with self-examinations helps you detect early stages of oral cancer.


Self-Examination Checklist


1)      Throat

2)      Tongue

3)      Cheeks

4)      Teeth

5)      Gums

6)      Roof of your mouth

7)      Lips—check the inner tissues as well