Oral Cancer – Types, Stages, Symptoms, and Treatment
In the US, over 49,000 oral cancer cases are diagnosed annually. There is a higher percentage occurring amongst people above 40. Most times, the discovery of oral cancer happens after it has already reached the neck lymph nodes.
Mouth cancer refers to cancer that is in the throat or mouth tissues. It is grouped among cancers that fall under the neck and head cancer category.
Most oral cancer cases occur in cells called oral squamous cells. Surviving mouth cancer is down to early detection. That is why it is important to understand the types, stages, signs and symptoms of mouth and oral cancer.
Types of mouth cancers
Some types of oral cancers include:
- Lip cancer
- Tongue cancer
- Cheek inner lining cancer
- Gum cancer
- Mouth floor cancer
- Hard/soft palate cancer
With the help of your dentist, you can easily detect the signs of mouth cancer. Be sure to go to your dentist appointments at least two times every year. This will enable your dentist to adequately monitor your oral health.
The stages of oral cancer
Mouth cancer typically occurs in four different stages. In the first stage of oral cancer, the tumor can be as small as 2 cm and your lymph nodes have not been attacked by the cancer.
By the second stage of oral cancer, the tumor can increase up to 4 cm while the cancer cells still have not reached your lymph nodes.
Two scenarios could occur in the third stage of oral cancer. Here, the tumor may even be larger than 4 centimeters but not yet reached your lymph nodes. Another possibility is that the tumor could be any size and has reached one lymph node without attacking other body parts.
In the fourth stage of oral cancer, tumors can grow to any size with nearby tissues developing into cancerous cells. These cancer cells can also spread to your lymph nodes and other body parts.
As much as 60% of oral cancer patients can live for up to 5 years and above. Diagnosing the condition at an early stage will increase survival chances after treatment.
There is a high overall survival rate for people in the first and second stages of mouth cancer. Now you can see the importance of early diagnosis and treatment.
Oral cancer symptoms and signs
There are warning signs of oral cancer that one must look out for. Here are the mouth cancer symptoms –
- Loose teeth
- Lump in the neck
- Problem with swallowing
- Oral bleeding
- Growth or mass inside the mouth
- Sore mouth or lip that just doesn’t heal
- Sore throat
- Red, red & white, or white patches in/on lips or mouth
- Pain or stiffness in the jaw
- Tongue pain
- Sudden weight loss
Keep in mind that some of the above-mentioned signs of oral cancer like earaches or sore throat may be associated with other conditions. But experiencing these signs should prompt you to visit your doctor if they refuse to go away. If something lasts longer than 2 weeks, it needs to be examined by a dentist or doctor.
Here is a great video about mouth cancer and how to spot early signs of oral cancer :
How is oral cancer diagnosed?
To properly diagnose mouth cancer, an oral health expert will conduct a physical examination. This exam involves studying your mouth’s roof and the floor of your mouth. It also involves examining, your cheeks, tongue, and throat. Your doctor will also study your neck lymph nodes. The inability to determine the reason for your symptoms may see you referred to an ENT specialist.
But should your dentist detect suspicious lesions, growth, or tumors, a brush or tissue biopsy will be carried out. Other tests that could possibly be recommended by your doctor are as follows:
- A PET scan for determining how far cancer has traveled around your body
- A CT scan for revealing mouth, lungs, neck, and also throat tumors. They’ll also check for tumors in other body areas
- X-rays to detect whether cancer cells have reached your lungs, chest, and jaw.
- An MRI scan for giving a highly accurate picture of your neck and head to help determine the cancer stage.
- An endoscopy for nasal passage and windpipe examination, as well as trachea, sinuses, and your inner throat.
Oral cancer treatment
Mouth cancer treatment varies and is dependent on factors like the stage, as well as type and location. Here are some treatment options for oral cancer:
Early-stage oral cancer can usually be treated with surgery. In this case, the procedure helps to take out the cancerous lymph nodes and the tumor. They may also take out some mouth and neck tissue depending on each particular case.
This involves using cancer cell-killing drugs. The health professionals administer the drugs to you intravenously or orally. Chemotherapy may also be initiated on an outpatient basis but there are cases where hospitalization is required.
3. Radiation therapy
This is a treatment procedure where the doctor locates the tumor and aims radiation beams at it for typically five days per week, for a couple of weeks. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are usually combined to treat advanced-stage mouth cancer.
Nutrition plays a very big role in treating oral mouth cancer. Some forms of treatment can make eating and swallowing a painful ordeal. You may also experience weight loss and a lack of appetite. Your diet should be one of the things you discuss with your doctor. You want to be sure that you consume the right kinds of foods to provide you with energy and the essential nutrients necessary for quick recovery.
5. Targeted therapy
This is another treatment option for mouth cancer. Regardless of the stage of oral cancer, whether in the early/advanced stages, targeted therapy can be very effective. In this form of treatment, targeted therapy drugs are administered and they bind to particular cancer cell proteins. Their work is to inhibit the growth of the cells.
6. A healthy oral environment
A very important aspect of mouth cancer treatments is to maintain a healthy mouth. Keep your gums and teeth clean, and ensure that your mouth stays moist. If you suffer from dry mouth, check out this article on dry mouth help.
Early detection is the best way to guarantee survival in oral cancer patients. Stick to your dental health professional appointments to help your doctor & dentist monitor the state of your mouth. Also, be on the lookout for the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer to help you get treatment if the need arises.
Kelly Hancock, RDH
Kelly is a registered dental hygienist and oral health care provider. She is passionate about oral hygiene and encourages people to achieve optimal oral health. She has been working in the dental profession for 16 years and worked in many different roles in the dental industry. Kelly is currently a pediatric dental hygienist specializing in children’s dentistry. She is committed to helping others with their oral health care issues and helping others achieve a smile they love.