The primary risk factor for developing oral cancer is tobacco use. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes all increase your risk of oral cancer. Smokeless tobacco, often called “dip” or “chew,” also heighten the risk. Alcohol consumption is another habit that is strongly associated with the development of oral cancer.
Research strongly suggests that infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) increases your risk of oral cancer, as well. HPV is a virus that is transmitted through sexual contact, like sexual skin-to-skin contact, vaginal/anal intercourse, and oral sex.
During a dental exam, your dentist will screen for symptoms of oral cancer. However, symptoms may arise throughout the year that may need further examination by your dentist or doctor. Symptoms of oral cancer include:
- a sore or blister in your mouth or on your lip that does not heal after two weeks
- lesion on the tongue or tonsil
- white and red patches in the mouth or lips that does not heal
- bleeding from the mouth that is unrelated to an injury
- change in the way teeth fit together, including how dentures fit or loose teeth because of jaw swelling or pain
- persistent earaches
- difficulty swallowing, chewing, speaking, or moving the tongue
If your healthcare professional finds symptoms to be suspicious of oral cancer, then further evaluation is required to confirm the absence or presence of cancer. This can be done by doing a biopsy of the abnormal area(s) of the mouth. A biopsy removes small amounts of tissue that is sent to a pathology lab for examination under a microscope.
If cancer is found, the stage of the disease is then determined. Staging refers to how far the oral cancer has spread. Further tests like dental x-rays, endoscopy, and other imaging tests may be used to determine how far the cancer has spread.
Treatment for oral cancer heavily depends on the stage of the disease. More than one type of treatment may be used in treating oral cancer. Methods of treatment include:
Surgery. Surgery to remove cancerous tissue is a common method of oral cancer treatment. For some people, surgery is the only type of treatment needed; for others, chemotherapy and radiation may also be needed. In some cases, lymph nodes in the neck may be also removed.
Radiation Therapy. Radiation therapy uses certain types of high energy beams of radiation to shrink tumors or eliminate cancer cells. Radiation therapy works by damaging a cancer cell’s DNA, making it unable to multiply. Although radiation therapy can damage nearby healthy cells, cancer cells are highly sensitive to radiation and typically die when treated. Healthy cells that are damaged during radiation are resilient and are often able to fully recover.
Two primary types of radiation therapy are external beam radiation therapy and internal beam radiation, also called brachytherapy. External beam radiation is much more common than internal beam radiation in treating oral cancer.
Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy may be prescribed to reduce the size of a tumor before radiation therapy or surgery or may also be given in conjunction with radiation treatments.
Avoiding the known risk factors of oral cancer is the best way to prevent the disease. Most cases of oral cancer are related to tobacco and alcohol use, so avoiding both habits are key to preventing it. Sun exposure can be related to cancer of the lips, so staying out of the sun and wearing a lip balm that contains sunscreen is also important.
Visiting your dentist regularly may aid in the early detection of oral cancer. Your dentist is trained to look and feel for signs of the disease. Oral cancer screening involves visual examination of the mouth and dental x-rays. Newer screening tools like VELscope allow your doctor to thoroughly look for signs of oral cancer that may not be visible to the naked eye. These newer screening tools are highly recommended for those who are at a higher risk of developing oral cancer, like those who smoke or consume alcohol.