Cancer doesn’t seem to care where it lives in your body. That means it can even appear in your mouth, but unless you see a dentist regularly, you may not even notice the red flags.
Almost 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer (which includes the soft palette and back of the tongue) each year, and of that number almost 10,000 will not survive, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Mouth cancer may not be talked about as much as other cancers, but the foundation said it’s more deadly than others including cervical cancer and thyroid cancer. Here are six things to know…
According to WebMD, the symptoms can be wide-ranging, which is another good reason to see your dentist or doctor to sort it out. These symptoms can include rough spots on the gums, speckled patches in the mouth, unexplained bleeding, and even the feeling of having something stuck in the back of your throat.
The source adds that oral cancers may also make themselves known by making it difficult to chew or swallow, and you may have a chronically sore throat or ear pain. “Dramatic” weight loss can be another sign of cancer, it adds.
The Cancer Treatment Centers of America says “every oral cancer patient is different,” and that being said, there are a variety of oral cancers. However, the most common is called , which affects the cells that line the throat and mouth.
Other types include verrucous carcinoma, “a type of very slow-growing cancer made up of squamous cells,” explains the source. There are also oral cancers that can affect the salivary glands as well as lymph tissues (contained in the base of the tongue and tonsils). Non-cancerous tumors can also form in the mouth, which can be surgically removed.
It’s probably no surprise that these 2-groups are most at risk for developing oral cancer, but the amount of increased risk may surprise you. Healthline.com says excessive smokers and drinkers (in combination) can be 100-times more likely to develop oral cancer than those who abstain.
Aside from cigarettes (which is often associated with cancer of the mouth and throat), those who chew tobacco products can be at higher risk for mouth cancer that develops in the cheeks, gums, and the inside of the lips, adds the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Even if you’re not a heavy drinker or smoker, there are other factors that could increase your chance of developing oral cancer, according to MouthCancer.org.
For example, the U.K.-based source notes oral cancer is twice as common in men than women, with Caucasian males being most at risk (and Asian men a close second). On top of that, 86-percent of cases are diagnosed in patients aged 50 or older, and are often linked to “ lifestyle and environmental factors”. Genetic factors can also come into play.
An article from WebMD.com explains that oral cancer is associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. However, not only is there an increase in oral cancers connected to HPV, the initial symptoms of HPV-linked cancers could be unique, it adds.
A study cited by the source explains that of 88-records of patients diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer by the Medical University of South Carolina, 71 had HPV-positive cancer – with the common initial symptom being a lump in the neck (50-percent of the HPV patients had the lump, compared to 18-percent with HPV-negative cancers).
Like other cancers, the way doctors will approach oral cancer is by the location of the tumor and how far it has progressed, explains the American Cancer Society. In the earliest stages, the cancer can be targeted by removing top layers of tissue along with some layers of normal tissue, according to the source.
As the disease progresses, surgery or radiation therapy can be recommended (mostly for cancers affecting the back of the tongue and tonsils), along with chemotherapy. Oral cancers of the lip (as well as front of the tongue and floor of the mouth) are usually dealt with through surgery, while affected lymph nodes may be removed. Surgery and radiation can be used together for later stages, as well as cetuximab, an anti-cancer drug.