Mouth cancer has the same meaning as oral cancer – it is cancer that occurs in any part of the mouth; on the tongue’s surface, in the lips, inside the cheek, in the gums, in the roof and floor of the mouth, in the tonsils, and also the salivary glands.
Mouth cancer is a type of head and neck cancer, and is often treated similarly to other head and neck cancers.
34,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer each year, 23% with fatal cases. Most oral cancer cases occur when the patient is at least 40 years old. It affects more men than women.
Most patients have no detectable symptoms during the early stages of oral cancer. Smokers, heavy drinkers should have regular checkups at the dentists’ – dentists are often able to identify signs of oral cancer.
When signs and symptoms do appear, the typically include:
If you have some of these symptoms you should see our doctor. There are many other conditions and diseases with similar symptoms.
A risk factor is anything that increases that likelihood of developing a disease or condition. For example, regular smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer; therefore smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer. The risk factors for mouth cancer include:
Cancer starts when the structure of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) alters – a genetic mutation. DNA provides the cells with a basic set of instructions, much like a computer program for life. The instructions tell cells when to grow, reproduce, and die, among other things. When there is a genetic mutation cells grow in an uncontrollable manner, eventually producing a lump (tumor).
If the cancer is left untreated it grows and eventually spreads to other parts of the body, usually through the lymphatic system – a series of nodes (glands) that exist throughout the body. The lymph glands produce many of the cells of our immune system. As soon as the cancer reaches the lymphatic system it can spread anywhere in the body and invade bones, blood and organs. The cancer cells continue reproducing uncontrollably, gradually occupying more and more space.
Cancer is ultimately the result of cells that uncontrollably grow and do not die. Normal cells in the body follow an orderly path of growth, division, and death. Programmed cell death is called apoptosis, and when this process breaks down, cancer begins to form. Unlike regular cells, cancer cells do not experience programmatic death and instead continue to grow and divide. This leads to a mass of abnormal cells that grows out of control.
With time, oral cancer may spread firstly to other parts of the mouth, then the head and neck, and eventually to other parts of the body. Mouth cancers typically start in the squamous cells (flat, thin cells) than line the lips and the inside of the mouth – they are referred to as squamous cell carcinomas.
Although we know what the risk factors are, experts are not sure what cause the mutations in squamous cells that eventually lead to mouth cancer.
A general practitioner or dentist will carry out a physical examination and ask the patient questions about his/her symptoms. If oral cancer is suspected the patient will be referred to either an oncologist or an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist. An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancers. ENT specialists are also known as Otolaryngologists.
As soon as mouth cancer is diagnosed the doctor will determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. Tests to help staging may include:
Staging the cancer (identifying its stage) provides a universally understood definition of a particular cancer’s progress. It helps in the planning of treatment protocol for that particular cancer, helps in determining prognosis (predicting likely outcomes), and also allows accurate end-results reporting.