Oral cancer, also known as mouth cancer, is the most common type of cancer that affects the head and neck. More specifically, oral cancer causes abnormal cell growth in the tissues inside the oral cavity – including the tongue, lips, gums, inner cheeks, and roof of the mouth.
If left untreated, oral cancer can spread through the mouth and into the throat. How serious the condition is depends on the type of cancer and the person’s overall health, but oral cancer can become life-threatening if it isn’t diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
Anyone can develop mouth cancer, but the risk increases as we get older. According to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, the number of people with oral cancer in the UK has more than doubled over the last 20 years, but awareness of the symptoms and risk factors is very low.
With the number of people losing their lives to mouth cancer increasing every year, it’s crucial to raise awareness of the causes and signs of oral cancer, helping people to reduce their personal risk and reminding adults to get checked with regular oral cancer screenings.
Here’s what you should know about oral cancer and how to get help and support.
There are flat cells in the tissues all over the body, including in the oral cavity, called squamous cells. Oral cancer starts when the DNA in these cells changes, causing them to grow and multiply at an uncontrolled rate. These cancerous cells can then spread to other parts of the body.
What causes mouth cancer isn’t always certain, but particular risk factors can increase the likelihood of a person developing oral cancer. These include:
Most people already know that excessive alcohol consumption is bad for your health in many ways, causing organ damage to the liver, digestive system, brain, and more.
Did you know regularly drinking a lot of alcohol can also increase the risk of developing several different cancers? Consuming even one alcoholic drink every day can increase the risk of mouth and throat cancer by 15%, according to Alcohol Change UK.
Similarly, many people are aware that spending too much time in direct sunlight or using sunbeds for tanning can damage DNA cells and increase the risk of skin cancer.
However, they may forget that this includes the lips. The head and neck are most exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, and if you don’t apply sunscreen on your lips, you could become one of around 1.5 million people a year who get skin cancer globally.
As with most types of cancer, if your family has a history of relatives with oral cancer, you may be more likely to develop it yourself due to inherited genetic risk factors.
Unfortunately, if you have already had cancer before, there is also an increased risk that you could get cancer again. One study found that 15% of cancer survivors developed a second cancer, with a 55% risk of it being a different cancer and 68% the same cancer.
As we age, our cells are more prone to damage because of biological factors and long-term exposure to risk factors, including environmental carcinogens.
It makes sense, then, that most oral cancer cases occur later in life – though it’s less known why men are more likely to get mouth cancer than women. The Mouth Cancer Foundation reports that 78% of oral cancer patients are over 55 years old, and 68% are men.
Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes – or chewing ‘smokeless’ tobacco products, including betel nut or paan masala – can massively increase your risk of getting oral cancer.
According to ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), smoking is responsible for around 1 in 5 of all cancers throughout the body, including the oral cavity. Oral cancer is 91% higher in people who smoke compared to people who have never smoked.
There are plenty more risk factors for mouth cancer that aren’t as well known as the previously mentioned causes, including poor diet and excess body weight.
If you have a weak immune system, whether from immunosuppressant medication or a condition like HIV or AIDS, your body is less capable of fighting off infections, which can increase the risk of developing many health complications, including various cancers.
Mouth cancer, in particular, has been linked to human papillomavirus (HPV), because it can be transmitted through oral sexual activity, despite being more widely known for causing cervical cancer – HPV vaccines are available to help reduce these risks.
As with many illnesses, oral cancer symptoms can often be mistaken for something else, such as mouth irritation from poor oral hygiene or a sore throat from a common cold.
However, if these symptoms don’t go away within a few weeks, they could be signs of oral cancer – especially if they get worse or occur at the same time as other symptoms.
Symptoms of oral cancer can affect any part of the mouth and include the following:
While any one of these symptoms alone might not be an immediate cause for concern, you should see your dentist as soon as possible if one or more of them persist without improvement.
They can refer you to a hospital for further tests and provide treatment for mouth ulcers and oral pain.
When you see your dentist with symptoms that could potentially be oral cancer, they will ask questions about your lifestyle and health, look inside your mouth to examine the affected areas, and feel the outside of your jaws and neck.
If they have concerns about the cause of your symptoms, r your dentist can refer you to a specialist to be tested for mouth cancer. This involves going to a hospital for a biopsy, where a small cell sample will be taken from any affected areas in your mouth or throat.
You may also have to undergo X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, or ultrasound scans, depending on where the doctors think the cancer may be located.
You should receive your oral cancer test results within 2 weeks, and a specialist will discuss them with you to explain what will happen next if you are diagnosed with mouth cancer.
Globally, mouth cancer affects around 650,000 people a year, but oral cancer is very treatable, with a survival rate of 18%–57% depending on where it is and how early it’s diagnosed.
If you have been diagnosed with oral cancer, a specialist team will create a treatment plan for you. The mouth cancer treatment you’ll undergo depends on factors such as the location and size of the cancer and your age and overall health.
You may be offered one treatment or a combination of different treatments, but your team will explain what will happen and help you to manage side effects.
The most common treatment is surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. Depending on how much the cancer has spread, more tissue may need to be removed to reduce the risk of it coming back – meaning you may need reconstructive surgery to replace lost tissue or bone.
If the surgery doesn’t work or isn’t possible, other treatment routes include radiotherapy which uses radiation to kill cancerous cells, or chemotherapy, which targets cancer cells with medicine.
Aside from radiotherapy and chemo, other targeted anti-cancer drugs may be available, or immunotherapy may be recommended to help your body attack the cancer cells.
Upon successful completion of mouth cancer treatment, your team will share information about how this could affect the rest of your life, and expect you to attend regular follow-up appointments to check your recovery and make sure the cancer hasn’t returned.
If you are diagnosed with incurable oral cancer, you could still undergo treatment to slow its spread and help you to live longer. You will have help from a symptom control team or a palliative care team to make you as comfortable as possible and support you and your loved ones.
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to 100% prevent mouth cancer, as there are so many factors involved that could cause it to develop. However, there are definitely things that you can do to actively reduce your personal risk of getting oral cancer.
The healthier and stronger you are in general, the lower your risk of developing a serious illness, and the better your chances of recovering if you do. Eating a balanced nutritional diet and exercising regularly should help with this.
Of course, medical professionals will always recommend drinking alcohol in moderation and quitting smoking to improve health, reducing cell damage and exposure to carcinogens. This includes no longer consuming chewing tobacco products.
Similarly, avoiding excessive UV exposure is recommended and always wearing sunscreen on exposed skin – including the lips! – when out in the sun.
If you weren’t vaccinated against HPV as a child, you could also look into being vaccinated against human papillomavirus as an adult.
Since oral cancer occurs in the mouth, the risk can also be reduced by maintaining good oral hygiene, which can prevent infections and cell damage. Adults should attend a routine check-up with their dentist at least once a year.
By educating yourself about oral cancer, you’ll also be able to look out for the signs and symptoms, so you can go to the doctor as soon as you notice something may be wrong.
The latest mouth cancer statistics show that the number of people losing their lives to oral cancer in the UK is rising dramatically – increasing by 46% in the last decade. More people die of oral cancer each year in the UK than cervical and testicular cancer combined.
They also reveal that the 5-year survival rate for mouth cancer has barely improved due to late detection, with over half of oral cancer cases diagnosed at Stage IV, when the cancer is most advanced and challenging to treat.
The best way to catch mouth cancer early on, when it is most treatable and survivable, is to attend regular oral cancer screenings provided by a qualified dentist or dental hygienist. Adults between 20–40 years old should get an oral cancer screening at least once every 3 years, while adults over 40 years old should be screened for oral cancer annually.
Early detection of oral cancer can save lives, so if you’re overdue a screening or have been experiencing symptoms mentioned in this blog, please book an oral cancer screening.