A diagnosis of cancer can be devastating, and there is good reason for this fear --cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States next to heart disease. Cancer will claim more than half a million lives this year. Oral cancer accounts for about 3.6 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States, and about 8000 deaths annually. Oral cancer will often appear as red, white or discolored patches or lumps, or as an ulcer that does not heal. It most commonly affects the sides of the tongue, floor of the mouth (under the tongue), soft palate, lips and gums. Without treatment, oral cancer, like other types of cancer, can spread throughout the body.
Cancer is treated in a variety ways, depending on the size of the tumor, its location, type and a host of other factors. Three common ways to treat oral and other cancers include: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy (drug therapy). In many cases, these methods are combined to get the most effective results.
Surgery is the oldest way to treat cancer. If the tumor is relatively localized, it can be surgically removed. Often, a border of healthy tissue surrounding the tumor is also taken to ensure that all of the cancer cells have been removed. Surgery is commonly used for cancer of the mouth, head and neck, breast, colon, kidney, testes and other parts of the body. Surgery can also be used to remove tissue that may become cancerous if left untreated (precancerous) and also to relieve symptoms caused by the cancer. Surgery is often combined with chemotherapy or radiation to improve results.
Radiation therapy, also know as radiotherapy, X-ray therapy, cobalt therapy, or irradiation, is useful in fighting cancer because it destroys cancer cells more easily than normal cells. Radiotherapy is commonly delivered with an external beam of X-rays, gamma rays or alpha and beta particles directed at the tumor. Radiation therapy is used for early Hodgkin's lymphoma, certain cancers of the lung, prostate, bladder, mouth and other tumors. Radiation therapy is commonly used in conjunction with other therapies, including surgery and chemotherapy. For instance, radiation therapy may shrink a tumor to facilitate surgery, or be used as an adjunct after surgery to prevent the tumor from reforming. In some cases, radiation therapy is used alone, especially when the tumor is very susceptible to radiation, or when surgery to the area is too risky. Radiation can be used to shrink a tumor to provide relief from symptoms associated with tumor growth, even when a cure is highly unlikely.
Chemotherapy, or drug therapy, is used to kill cancer cells while attempting to limit the damage to normal cells. Chemotherapy is useful in fighting cancer that has spread to other parts of the body and cannot be easily detected or treated with surgery or radiation therapy. Of the roughly 50 anticancer drugs, some can be used alone, or in combination with other anticancer drugs. Chemotherapy has been successful in treating acute leukemia, Hodgkin's and malignant lymphoma, small cell lung cancer, bladder and testicular cancer, and other forms of cancer.
Chemotherapy can cure cancer in some cases, limit its spread, and help alleviate the symptoms in some types of cancer. Advanced oral cancer, like other types of cancer, is sometimes treated with chemotherapy in addition to surgery and radiation.
It is important to remember that oral cancer, and other types of cancer, is far more likely to be cured if discovered early. You can protect yourself from oral cancer by limiting or eliminating alcohol, tobacco products and excessive exposure to sunlight. I recommend daily self-examinations of your mouth and visit the dentist at least twice a year for those all-important oral cancer screenings.
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