Oral cancer also known as mouth cancer can be life threatening if it is not diagnosed and treated early. Oral cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that can develop in any part of the mouth. It can develop on the lips, cheeks, floor of the mouth, sinuses, pharynx (throat), gums, tongue and roof of the mouth. According to studies, men face twice the risk of developing oral cancer as women, and men who are over age 50 face the greatest risk.
Well, the exact cause of mouth cancer is unclear, but there are certain factors that increases a person’s risk of developing mouth cancer. Smokers and users of dip, snuff, or chewing tobacco products are 6 times more likely to develop cancers of the cheek, gums, lining of the lips and throat. An individual with a weakened immune system, who drinks excessive alcohol and smoke is 50 times more likely to have mouth cancer than people that doesn’t smoke and drink.
In the early stages of mouth cancer, there are often low number of signs and symptoms. At the start, most patients have mouth cancer without knowing until the disease has progressed into a more severe stage. When dealing with mouth cancer, early detection can improve the chance of successful treatment. On my previous article, I gave a list of the early signs of mouth cancer. You read the post here – The early signs & symptoms of oral cancer.
Symptoms of Oral Cancer
- Dramatic weight loss
- Thick mouth ulcers or sores that do not heal easily
- Formation of white or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue
- Development of bumps or lumps on the lips, throat or other areas inside the mouth.
- Hoarseness, difficulty in speaking or change in voice
- Pain and difficulty in chewing or swallowing
- Numbness or loss of feeling in the area of the face, mouth, or neck
- Unexplained loose teeth
- Chronic sore throat and sensation that something is caught in the back of the throat
- Ear, mouth and tongue pain
- Persistent bad breath that does not go away
- Jaw pain or stiffness
How to diagnose oral cancer
- Physical screening: the dentist will examine your mouth to check for any of the symptoms that I listed above. The dentist look for any sores or colored patches on the surface of your mouth and throat. Your dentist will also feel for any lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, face, and oral cavity.
- Biopsy: If suspicious areas are visualized during the physical exam, a tissue sample is removed from there for laboratory testing in a procedure known as biopsy. Biopsy is done to determine if cancer cells are present within the tissue sample that was taken from the suspected area. The cells are thoroughly analyzed for cancer or precancerous changes.
The next step is to determine the stage and how far the cancer has spread, once mouth cancer is diagnosed. There are some of the available mouth cancer staging tests:
- Endoscopy tests: the endoscopic procedure is done with the use of a small, flexible camera. During the procedure, the doctor will pass a small, flexible camera equipped with a light down your throat to look for signs and know if the cancer has spread beyond your mouth. (1)
- Imaging tests: the main aim of conducting imaging tests is to determine whether cancer has spread beyond your mouth. There are numerous types of imaging tests available, your doctor will determine which tests are appropriate based on the nature of your condition. The imaging tests may include X-ray, CT, MRI and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, among others.
Oral Cancer Treatment Options
There are a variety of treatments options available for treating oral cancer. Depending on the location and stage of the cancer, you may need just one type of treatment, or a combination of cancer treatments. A patient’s general health condition and personal preferences is also another important factor in determining the suitable type of treatments.
The most common treatments options for mouth cancer include:
Surgery involves involves an operation to remove the entire tumor from the mouth. A surgeon will have to cut away the tumor and a margin of healthy tissue that surrounds it to ensure all of the cancer cells have been removed. Sometimes, during the surgery if it turns out that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, the cancerous lymph nodes and related tissue in the neck will be surgically taken out. If the tumor is too large, the surgeon may have to remove a section of your jawbone or a portion of your tongue.
In addition, after the surgery for the removal of the cancerous cells have been completed, your surgeon may recommend reconstructive surgery to rebuild your mouth to help you regain the ability to talk and eat. In most cases, dental implants may be used to replace your natural teeth.
2. Radiation Therapy
With oral cancers being highly sensitive to radiation therapy, the surgeon uses beams of high-energy X-rays or radiation particles to damage the DNA inside the tumor cells, destroying their ability to reproduce. (2) Radiation therapy technology treats cancerous tissues of the mouth with more accuracy, the high energy beams of radiation are specially designed to spare healthy tissue while they shrink tumors and eliminate only cancer cells. Sometimes, for more accuracy radiation therapy is often combined with chemotherapy to eliminate and also prevent the cancer from returning.
Often combined with other cancer treatments, chemotherapy involves the use of drugs and chemicals to destroy cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy drugs can be either be given alone or combined with other cancer treatments. In order to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy, it’s often combined with radiation therapy.
Chemotherapy alone is very effective. The drugs used are powerful enough to damage the DNA of the cancer cells, undermining their ability to reproduce. Although, chemotherapy has its own side effects. The side effects depends entirely on the type of drugs used. Most patients experience nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue and weakened immune system after chemotherapy.
4. Targeted drug therapy
Targeted drug therapy works by interfering with cancer cell growth on a molecular level. Cetuximab, also known as Erbitux, is usually used for targeted drug therapy. Cetuximab (Erbitux) stops the action of a protein that’s found in many types of healthy cells, but is more prevalent in certain types of cancer cells. Depending on the stage of the cancer, cetuximab may be combined with radiation or chemotherapy, or even used as a single agent. However, most patients experience nausea, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, inflammation of the eyes, or conjunctivitis as side effects affect targeted drug therapy.
Immunotherapy is very effective for fighting persistent oral cancer. The drugs work by helping the body’s immune system identify and kill cancer cells. In the body, cancer cells produce proteins that blinds the immune system cells from attacking them. Immunotherapy helps our defense system to identify and kill all the cancer cells found in the body. Immunotherapy treatments are specially recommended for patients with advanced mouth cancer that is not responding to standard treatments. (3)