Cases of mouth cancer have increased by 135% over the last generation and for those who smoke and drink too much alcohol, the likelihood of developing the disease increases by 30 times. One-in-two smokers (50%) do not realize tobacco is linked to mouth cancer. Just under half (48%) of those that exceed the government’s weekly alcohol intake are unaware that drinking to excess increases the risk of mouth cancer. In the UK, a leading health charity is urging Brits to be more aware of how their lifestyle choices can increase their risk of mouth cancer. The Oral Health Foundation is calling for the UK to be more Mouthaware, following new research which shows a systematic misunderstanding of mouth cancer and what causes it. According to the State of Mouth Cancer UK Report, two in three (68%) British adults do not consider themselves to be at any risk of developing mouth cancer, despite many admitting to making lifestyle choices that contribute to the disease. Like with any disease, altering lifestyle choices and making healthier decisions for your body, can give you a better chance of avoiding this disease.
What is Mouth Cancer?
Mouth cancer refers to cancer that develops in any of the parts that make up the mouth. Cancer that occurs on the inside of the mouth is sometimes called oral cancer or oral cavity cancer. Oral cancer is divided into two categories – those occurring in the oral cavity (your lips, inside of your lips and cheeks, teeth, gums, the front two-thirds of your tongue and the floor and roof of your mouth) and those occurring in the oropharnyx (middle region of the throat, including the tonsils and base of the tongue).
What are the Causes of Mouth Cancer?
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, 48,330 Americans were expected to receive diagnosis of oral or pharyngeal cancer in 2016, and about 9,570 deaths were predicted. Most mouth cancer mostly happens after the age of 40, and the risk is more than twice as high in men as it is in women. Mouth cancer occurs when cells on your lips or in your mouth develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. These mutations allow cancer cells to continue growing and dividing when healthy cells would die. The accumulating abnormal mouth cancer can form a tumor. With time they may spread inside the mouth and on to other areas of the head and neck or other parts of the body.
Where Can Mouth Cancer Appear?
The oral cavity includes your lips, cheek lining, gums, front part of your tongue, floor of the mouth beneath the tongue and the hard palate that makes up the roof of your mouth. The throat starts at the soft part of the roof of your mouth and continues back into your throat. It includes the back section of your tongue, as well as the base where the tongue attaches to the floor of your mouth.
Risk Factors of Mouth Cancer
Smokers are three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop mouth cancer, and people who smoke and drink alcohol have up to 30 times higher risk than those who do not smoke and drink. Other factors that can increase your risk of mouth cancer include:
- Excessive sun exposure to lips
- A sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV)
- A weakened immune system
- Chewing tobacco and snuff
- Prior radiation treatment, radiotherapy, in head, neck or both
- Exposure to certain chemicals, especially asbestos, sulfuric acid, formaldehyde
What are the Symptoms of Mouth Cancer?
It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer and to consult your dentist, if they do not disappear after two weeks. The signs and symptoms of mouth cancer include:
- A sore or irritation that doesn’t go away
- A sore that bleeds
- Red or white patches
- Pain, tenderness or numbness in mouth or lips
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue or jaw
- A lump, thickening, rough spot, crust or mall eroded area
- A change in the way your teeth fir together when you close your mouth
- Sore throat
- Poorly fitting dentures
- Pain in the neck or ear that does not go away
Mouth Cancer Treatments
Treatment depends on the location and stage of the cancer, and the patient’s general health and personal preferences.
- Surgery – Surgical removal of the tumor involves taking out the tumor and a margin of healthy tissue around it. A small tumor will require minor surgery, but for larger tumors, surgery may involve removing some of the tongue or the jawbone. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, the cancerous lymph nodes and related tissue in the neck will be surgically removed. If there is a significant change in the appearance of the face, or the patient’s ability to talk, eat, or both, due to surgery – reconstructive surgery may be necessary.
- Radiation Therapy – Oral cancers are especially sensitive to radiation therapy, which uses beams of high-energy X-rays or radiation particles to damage the DNA inside the tumor cells, destroying their ability to reproduce. Radioactive wires or needles are stuck directly into the tumor, releasing a dose of radiation into the tumor. The patient is usually under general anesthetic. Radiation may remove cancer if a patient is in the early stages of oral cancer. Some effects of radiation therapy in the mouth may include: tooth decay, mouth sores, bleeding gums, jaw stiffness, fatigue, and skin reactions.
- Chemotherapy – Widespread cancer may be treated with chemotherapy as well as radiation therapy, especially if there is a significant chance of the cancer returning. Chemotherapy involves using powerful medicines that damage the DNA of the cancer cells, undermining their ability to reproduce. Chemotherapy medications can sometimes damage healthy tissue. Some effects that may occur include: fatigue, vomiting, nausea, hair loss and a weakened immune system, increasing the risk of infection.
- Targeted Drug Therapy. Targeted drug therapy uses drugs known as monoclonal antibodies to change aspects of cancer cells that help them grow. Some effects of these drugs include: nausea, diarrhea, breathlessness, and inflammation of the eyes.
Preventing Mouth Cancer
There’s no proven way to prevent mouth cancer, but you can reduce your risk of mouth cancer by doing the following:
- Stop using tobacco or don’t start.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all.
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. The vitamins and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables may help reduce your risk of mouth cancer.
- Avoid excessive sun exposure to your lips. Apply a sunscreen lip product as part of your routine sun protection regimen.
- See your dentist regularly. As part of a routine dental exam, ask your dentist to inspect your entire mouth for abnormal areas that may indicate mouth cancer or precancerous changes.