Let’s discuss something we don’t usually think about and don’t often hear about: oral cancer, or more specifically oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. Often grouped together, these cancers are not among the most hyped, but they’re disfiguring – and deadly – just the same.
Where are we talking about? The oral cavity, essentially the mouth, includes the lips, inside lining of the lips and cheeks, teeth, gums, front two-thirds of the tongue, floor of the mouth under the tongue, and bony roof of the mouth, or hard palate.
The oropharynx is the top part of the throat that starts in the back of the mouth. It begins where the oral cavity ends. The oropharynx generally includes the area behind the wisdom teeth, the last third of the tongue, the back part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate), the tonsils, and the side and back wall of the throat.
There’s a lot we don’t know about what causes cancer, but we know it often occurs when mutations in certain genes cause certain cells to grow out of control, causing tumors to form. What researchers are trying to pin down in most cases is what causes the mutations in the first place. That’s a really simplistic explanation.
Here, I’m going to tell you about risk factors and symptoms, so maybe you can catch an oral cancer in its early stages. Then, I’ll give you a few strategies for prevention, but if you want the full scoop on oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer, read this information from the American Cancer Society.
One of the things you’ll read is that the American Cancer Society estimates 51,540 American will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in 2018, and an estimated 10,030 of them will die from it. Fortunately, the death rate has actually been declining over the last ten years. These cancers are much more common in men than women.
Let’s start with risk factors. What traits and behaviors put you at greater risk for becoming one of those estimated 51,500 people to get one of these cancers. The top two risk factors are using tobacco and drinking alcohol. The tobacco risk increases the more you use it and the longer you’ve done so.
Also, about seven out of ten people with oral cancer are heavy drinkers. The risk is increased even more in people who use tobacco and drink heavily. Some studies suggest the combination leaves people as much as 100 times more at risk than people who don’t smoke or drink.
There are some genetic syndromes that can lead to oral cancer, and a weakened immune system can make a person more susceptible. Risk also increases with age and is affected by an unhealthy diet. Researchers are now finding that infection with the HPV virus is a rising risk factor for some forms of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.
These cancers generally appear as a growth or sore in your mouth that doesn’t go away. It can be on anywhere in your mouth, including your lips, tongue and cheeks Here are a few other symptoms to watch out for:
- White, red or speckled patches in your mouth
- Unexplained bleeding
- Loss of feeling
- Pain or tenderness
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Hoarseness or persistent sore throat
- Lump in the neck
There are other signs and symptoms as well.
Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer are generally treated with chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, or a combination of these treatments. The choice of treatment depends on the patient’s age and how advanced the cancer is, it’s stage. Treatment can leave you disfigured or with problems speaking or eating. Additional treatment may be necessary.
Today, patients also have the benefit of biological and targeted therapies. These therapies kill cancer cells without damaging the surrounding healthy tissues.
Some of the risk factors can’t be controlled, but these are things you can do to reduce your risk or find oral cancer early. These include:
- Limit your tobacco use
- Drink alcohol in moderation
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of vegetables
- Protect yourself against HPV infection
- Examine your mouth at least once a mouth and look for lumps or spots
- See your dentist regularly. The dentist can often spot suspicious areas in your mouth before you do.
You don’t want to be one of the 51,500 who will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer this year, and you especially don’t want to be one of the 10,000 who don’t make it. Now that you know about these cancers, be aware of your risk factors and on the lookout for symptoms.