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Oral Cancer: An Overview


What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer: What it is, how to detect it and how to treat it.

Oral and throat cancer, also referred to as oral pharyngeal cancer, may involve the lips, gums, tongue, teeth, cheeks, roof or floor of the mouth or back of the throat. It usually starts out as a small white spot that looks like an irritation, or an ulcer that may be red or white. The most common site is on the side of the tongue, and it oftentimes is not painful. The lesion may become infected and increase in size.

There are 30,000 new cases of oral cancer each year, according to the National Centers for Disease Control. The Center estimates that 8,000 individuals die each year from oral cancer. Some tumors are benign, meaning non-cancerous, and others are malignant or cancerous. If a malignant growth is not treated, cancer cells can spread to other areas of the body. With early diagnosis and advanced technology, oral cancer can be treated with success.

What Are the Symptoms?

The symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), include:

  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
  • A lump on the lip or in the throat or mouth
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or mouth lining
  • Unusual bleeding, numbness or pain in the mouth
  • A sore throat that won't disappear, or a feeling something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty or pain with swallowing or chewing
  • Jaw swelling that causes dentures to fit poorly or be uncomfortable
  • Voice changes
  • Ear pain

How Is it Detected?

Most dentists or dental hygienists check for oral cancer during the routine dental examination. If you have any symptoms, you should contact your dentist or physician immediately. If there is a problem, the patient may be referred to a specialist (e.g. an oral surgeon). Oral cancer is detected via a biopsy that includes removing all or part of the tissue growth. The sample is sent to a lab where the cells are examined. A new test will soon be on the market that enables a dentist to perform a biopsy in the office. The test includes brushing a suspicious area and sending the sample to a lab for examination.

Who Is at Risk?

Individuals who use tobacco (in any form) and drink alcohol are at increased risk for oral cancer. However, in about 25% of the cases, individuals with oral cancer did not drink or smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Research shows that men, particularly those over 40, get oral cancer two times as often as women, according to the NIH.

How Is it Prevented?

Good oral hygiene can help prevent oral cancer, as well as having your dentist or physician check your mouth regularly for skin lesions and abrasions.

How Is it Treated?

If the growth is malignant, oral cancer may be treated via:

  • Surgery (removal of the cancerous tissue by a surgeon)
  • Radiation therapy (treatment involves radiation, such as gamma or beta rays)
  • Chemotherapy (treatment involves the use of drugs)
  • A combination of the above

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