What is Mouth Cancer?
Oral cancers of the mouth are aggressive growths that can invade the tongue, roof of the mouth and spread elsewhere in the body.
Is it very common?
Unfortunately oral cancer is not rare. In the UK there are about 3800 new cases and around 1700 deaths. In the U.S it accounts for 2% of all cancer deaths. It is slightly more common in men and mainly affects older people although patients in their teens and twenties have been diagnosed.
What are the causes?
Oral cancer is rare in non-smokers. Tobacco, smoked or chewed is nearly always implicated in oral cancer. Heavy smoking and drinking together increase the risk hugely. Other habits associated mainly with the Asian community; such as betel nut chewing and bidi smoking are also highly carcinogenic.
As with all cancers, there will always be the rare but unfortunate individuals who indulge is none of these habits and still develop the disease, this is likely to represent a genetic susceptibility to the disease.
Cancer of the lips may be caused by sunburn and excessive sun exposure in the same way as other skin cancers.
I am concerned, what can I do?
Most cancers occur above the age of forty. Alcohol and Tobacco is implicated in most oral cancers. Prevention involves stopping smoking and giving up heavy drinking.
However, recent studies have indicated that all persons can develop mouth cancer. Healthy, young, non-smokers should not be complacent.
Early detection is probably the single most important factor. You must have your mouth examined routinely. Any suspicious change should be reported.
I am concerned, what can the dentist do?
Dentists have special training to identify conditions in the mouth. The visual exam is still one of the most reliable means of prevention. During the regular examinations of the mouth, we will check for any suspicious lesions. It is our job to refer all patients with suspicious lesions to a hospital for further checks.
What should I look out for?
Oral cancer can occur in many different ways, but the main thing is to be suspicious of any changes in colour and texture of the skin of the mouth, which last more than two weeks.
Most start off as white patches or red patches. Many of these patches are normal, only be concerned if they grow in size and become gradually more uneven.
Oral cancer can also present as a non-healing ulcer in the mouth, which is often painless. The main feature of cancer is that unlike other ulcers it does not go away.
Which part of the mouth are they likely to be found?
Most tumours of the mouth occur on the lips, under the tongue and towards the back of the tongue.
How will the Specialist test for oral cancer?
A dentist or specialist should examine any ulcer or red/white patch in the mouth. In order to determine the cause of the problem they will usually need to take a sample, a biopsy. This can usually be done painlessly under local anaesthetic.
If you are over 40 and smoke, drink alcohol heavily (over 21 units per week); use betel squid or chewing tobacco you should be checked for mouth cancer once a year by a Dentist. This applies equally to people wearing full dentures and have no teeth.
Any red or white patches in the mouth, and any ulcers that do not clear after two weeks, should also be checked.
You can greatly reduce the risk of mouth cancer if you stop using tobacco (even after many years of use).
A healthy diet, rich in fruit and vegetables and low in animal fats helps to prevent all types on cancer.