Mouth cancer is a tireless killer. Every hour of every day, someone in the United States dies from cancer of the mouth, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF). In the next 12 months, approximately 8,000 deaths in the United States will be attributed to mouth cancer. Tragically, many of these deaths could have been prevented by a simple test costing less than $100.
Cancer of the mouth goes by many names. Commonly referred to as tongue cancer, throat cancer, oral cancer and oral cavity cancer, this deadly disease is a growing international problem. Worldwide, more than 640,000 new cases of mouth cancer will be diagnosed this year. The OCF estimates that approximately 36,000 of those cases will be right here in the U.S.
Compounding this problem is news that the U.S. epidemic of cancer of the mouth cases shows no sign of abating. In fact, the number of Americans diagnosed with mouth cancer has grown for four straight years. In 2007, the number of cases jumped an alarming 11 percent. When you take into account OCF statistics showing that only 55 percent of patients survive five years or more after their mouth cancer symptoms have been diagnosed, the true magnitude of this health problem becomes clear.
Causes of Mouth Cancer
Cancer of the mouth has long been associated with tobacco and alcohol use. These lifestyle factors are directly linked to the development of oral squamous cell carcinoma which, as the OCF reports, is responsible for 90 percent of the cases of mouth cancer. Researchers believe that drinking alcohol and smoking cigars or cigarettes irritate the mouth’s mucus lining. This creates conditions that facilitate oral squamous cell carcinoma growth.
Taken individually, both alcohol and tobacco greatly raise your risk of developing mouth cancer. However, people who both smoke and drink are 15 times more likely to develop oral squamous cell carcinoma than people who do neither. The strong connection between smoking and cancer of the mouth has prompted many people to switch to smokeless products which are promoted as a safer alternative to cigarettes. Current independent research indicates that the growing popularity of smokeless tobacco is actually adding to a rise in mouth cancer.
Cancer of the mouth is increasingly common in people who have never used tobacco products and rarely drink alcohol. Recently, researchers have concluded that exposure to fungus and viruses is responsible for a significant percentage of these cases. Specifically, the human papilloma virus (HPV16) has been identified as the biggest source of mouth cancer cases not involving alcohol or tobacco.
Not all occurrences of cancer of the mouth are related to alcohol, tobacco or persistent viral infections like HPV16. Over exposure to ultraviolet radiation (e.g., sunlight) is a known cause of lip and mouth cancer. Poor oral hygiene and ill-fitting dentures have also been linked to oral cancer. Research indicates a possible connection between cancer of the mouth and nutrition. People with diets low in fruits and vegetables seem to be more likely to have mouth cancer symptoms. A small number of people, less than five percent of all cases according to the OCF, develop mouth cancer from no clearly understood cause. It is believed that these “mystery cases” are genetic in origin.
What are the warning signs of cancer of the mouth? Pay special attention to any sore in the mouth that does not heal within two weeks. The sore may or may not be painful. This is the most common symptom of mouth cancer. Any pain in the mouth, tongue or jaw that lasts two weeks or longer should also be considered a red flag event. Schedule an appointment with your dentist if you’re experiencing either of these mouth cancer symptoms.
Other frequently reported mouth cancer symptoms include:
- A lump of thickening of the skin on the inside lining of your mouth
- Unexplained numbness in any area of the face, mouth, or neck
- A white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
- The feeling that something is caught in your throat
- A sudden change in the fit of dentures
- Unexplained bleeding from the mouth
- Persistent sore throat or hoarseness
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- An abnormal taste in the mouth
- Sudden, dramatic weight loss
- Persistent bad breath
- Loose teeth
- Ear pain
Oral squamous cell carcinoma can be developing for years before the first symptoms of mouth cancer become apparent to the patient. That’s why regular dental visits are critical to diagnosing cancer of the mouth in its earliest and most treatable stages. The OCF reports that patients who receive early treatment have 80-90 percent greater long-term survival rate.
Mouth Cancer Treatment
Mouth cancer screenings generally consist of a visual and tactile examination. Several classic mouth cancer symptoms closely resemble those of non-cancerous dental conditions, including canker sores and trauma related to someone accidentally biting their tongue of the inside of the mouth. To ensure a more accurate diagnosis, a growing number of dentists are using VELscope® technology to help them better identify mouth cancer symptoms. Though this additional diagnostic test typically costs under $100, many patients forego it due to issues with their dental plan. After completing the oral cancer exam, the dentist may choose to biopsy any tissue that raises concern. This procedure is painless.
Treatment begins as soon a biopsy confirms the presence of mouth cancer. In the vast majority of cases, treating cancer of the mouth requires oral maxillofacial surgery to remove the oral squamous cell carcinoma growth. Surgery is followed by radiation treatment and or chemotherapy. Targeted drug therapy may be used to complement the mouth cancer treatment. According to WebMD, the overall survival rate for patients with all stages of cancer of the mouth is 81 percent. The 10-year survival rate is 41 percent.
Recognizing mouth cancer symptoms in their earliest stages is crucial to successfully fighting this disease.