Oral Cancer - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prevention & Treatment

Oral Cancer

Dr.L.M. Chandra Sekhar Rao S. profile Authored by Dr.L.M. Chandra Sekhar Rao S. on 21 Oct 2014 - 16:09.

Oral cancer refers to uncontrollable division of the abnormal cells located in the oral cavity. It is one of the types of head and neck cancers and appears as a sore or lesion in the mouth that does not go away. It is divided into several types based on the region affected :

  • Lips
  • Roof of the mouth
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Gums
  • Cheek lining
  • Tongue

Oral cavity allows the food to enter the digestive tract that ultimately provides energy to the cells for its growth and functions. In patients with cancer of the oral cavity, ingestion of food gets difficult due to painful abnormal growths, thereby leading to poor nutrition, dehydration or aspiration (accidental sucking of food into the lungs). Besides difficulty in chewing and swallowing, the disease creates inconvenience in speech process.

In the United States, Oral cancer takes life of a person every hour killing 24 persons per day. For more than one-third of the patients, survival period is less than 5 years. It can be classified into stages I to IV based on the area affected by the tumor.

Cancer develops when mutation (change in the sequence of DNA) takes place in cells, leading to uncontrolled growth in place of normal cells when they die. In most of the cases, cancer develops from the thin layer of squamous cells that lines the lips and the inside of mouth. With time, the tumor formed from the accumulation of cells, spread to the other parts of the body.

It starts with a lump, lesion, sore or swelling in any part of the oral cavity and does not heal in 14 days. White and red patches, unexplained bleeding and numbness may also be experienced. Other symptoms may include jaw pain, tongue pain, sore throat, loose teeth, weight loss and pain while chewing.

Your doctor will examine your oral cavity physically to check for any abnormal growth of tissues. If an area is suspected to be affected by tumor, biopsy test is performed, which involves removal of a small part of tissue from the affected region to test it in the laboratory for abnormality.

Other tests that can assist in determining the spread of the tumor are endoscopy and imaging tests such as X-ray, CT scan or MRI.

  • Men are at twice the risk of women in developing the disease.
  • Age above 50 years is susceptible to the disease.
  • Cigarette smokers are six times prone to the disease than non-smokers.
  • Smokeless tobacco users including people, who chew tobacco, are 50 times more likely to develop the disease.
  • Excessive exposure of sun on the lips.
  • Patients after undergoing hematopoietic stem cell transplantation are at a higher risk due to suppressed immune system.
  • People infected with Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) are more susceptible
  • Poor oral hygiene may also increase the risk

Oral cancers are managed by a single or combination of approaches based on the stage and severity of the condition. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and targeted therapy are the possible options in the treatment.

Surgery is mostly preferred in patients with small tumors and when removed, should give satisfactory results. It is associated with a risk of infection and bleeding.

Radiation uses beams of high energy to destroy the cancerous cells. It is used in early stages of cancer and after surgery to destroy the left over cells. It can also be used in cases where surgery cannot be performed. It may cause adverse affects like mouth dryness, tooth decay, mouth sores, bleeding gums and stiffness of jaw.

Chemotherapy is often used in combination with other treatment options preferably with radiation therapy. It can prolong the survival period if the tumor is not treatable. It is associated with severe adverse effects.

Targeted therapy focuses on the specific aspects of the tumor cells that influence abnormal growth of cells. These agents are similar to the drugs used in chemotherapy but with lower risk of adverse effects.

Other treatment tips:

  • Feeding tube can be inserted through the oral cavity to feed the patient.
  • Artificial moisteners are prescribed to keep your mouth moist as radiation therapy causes dryness of mouth which can persist up to several months.
  • Strong painkillers may be prescribed by your doctor to relieve you off the pain.
  • You can drink nutritional supplements if swallowing of solid food is difficult.
  • Cancer fighting food items such as red berries, green tea and diet rich in phytochemicals should be part of your diet.
  • Avoid food items that are sharp and hard to chew.
  • Add fish oils to your diet, it has anti-inflammatory properties that promotes healing.
  • Cut back on sugars as it feeds a tumor according to studies
  • Avoid acidic and spicy food items
  • Do not eat sticky food items which can adhere to the roof of the mouth
  • Stay away from strong aromas that may aggravate nausea

To keep yourself away from the disease, you must follow these:

  • Stay away from tobacco products
  • Avoid alcohol consumption as it can irritate the cells in your mouth to make them vulnerable to cancer
  • Include anti-oxidant rich food items in your diet
  • Get your oral cavity examined by a dentist periodically
  • Avoid your lips from sun exposure
*Disclaimer This is not medical advice. The content is for educational purposes only. Please contact your doctor for any health care issues.