What is oral cancer?

We explore what oral cancer is, what causes it and how it can be treated.

Oral cancer is a form of cancer that develops within the mouth; tongue, palate, lips, floor or roof of the mouth, sinuses or throat. .

It represents up to four per cent of all cancers diagnosed in Australia and it can be deadly if it’s not found and treated early.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Early diagnosis of oral cancer can be difficult because not everyone experiences symptoms. 

Some of the warning signs include:
  • Pain in an area of the mouth
  • Red or white patches of mucosa (mucus membrane) within the mouth
  • An ulcer that won’t heal
  • Pain or stiffness in the jaw
  • A lump or thickening of the skin lining in your mouth
  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Loose teeth
  • Bad breath
  • A numb feeling in the mouth
According to Bupa Executive Clinical Consultant and practising dentist Dr Mark Psillakis the most important warning sign to look out for is a persistent sore or lesion within the mouth.
“Early diagnosis is key, any lesion that persists for ten days to two weeks should be investigated,” says Dr Psillakis.

Types of oral cancer

Squamous cell carcinomas (SCC): most oral cancers, 90 per cent, are squamous cell carcinomas, which are thin flat cells on the inside of the mouth.

Melanoma: develop in the pigment producing skin cells around the mouth and lips but can also appear within the oral cavity.

Salivary gland cancer: is common for any lumps in this area to be cancerous (malignant), however it’s vital to have any abnormalities checked

Lymphoma: a cancer in the lymph tissue at the base of the mandible (lower jaw) and tonsils.
Dentist working on patient

Who is at risk of developing oral cancer? 

Men are more likely to develop oral cancer than women. It most commonly affects men over the age of 40.
It’s not fully understand why people develop oral cancer, but some of the risk factors include:
  • Smoking
  • Chewing or using other smokeless tobacco products like snuff
  • Excess alcohol consumption 
  • Previous history of cancer in the head or neck
  • Excess sun or UV light exposure
  • Infection with the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV)
  • Trauma to the mouth. 

Diagnosing oral cancer

Your oral hygienist or dentist   might be able to spot the early signs of mouth cancer during a regular check-up.

After an examination you may need to have a biopsy to test a sample of cells or tissue to determine whether it is malignant.

If you are diagnosed with oral cancer the type of treatment depends on the size, type, location of the cancer and how advanced it is.

Treatments for oral cancer may include:

Surgery: to remove the affected tissue. It may be necessary to follow up with chemotherapy or radiation treatment to ensure the cancer cells are removed or destroyed.

Radiation therapy: low doses of radiation can be used to destroy small isolated cancers.  

Chemotherapy: an anti-cancer treatment (either injected or taken via a tablet) which may be used in combination with surgery.

Biological therapy: a treatment that uses specially manufactured specific antibodies to control the growth of cancer cells (usually only used for advanced SCC of the head and neck). Treatment may also involve radiotherapy.

Bupa Dental

To prevent oral health issues before they arise find a Bupa owned dental clinic near you.

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