Know The Signs: Oral cancer

Oral cancer can be treated successfully if it is caught early, so don't ignore a sore or ulcer that doesn't heal.

Dave Yasvinski 4 minute read April 29, 2022
Seamless pattern with human mouths and lips

The most common sign of oral cancer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, is an ulcer or sore inside the mouth or on the lips that does not heal. GETTY

Oral cancer is a broad term that refers to the growth and spread of cancerous cells in the soft tissues of the mouth and throat. This type of cancer, which falls under the umbrella of head and neck cancers, can affect multiple areas, including the lips, gums, tongue, salivary glands, throat, inner lips, cheeks and the roof and floor of the mouth. Oral cancer can occur at any age, but the risk rises after the age of 45 and peaks around age 60.

Symptoms of oral cancer

The most common sign of oral cancer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, is an ulcer or sore inside the mouth or on the lips that does not heal. Other symptoms include prolonged mouth pain, including while swallowing, white patches and/or red patches on the lips or inside the mouth, lump or growth on the lips, tongue or inside the mouth, bleeding, and loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit.

Oral cancer can also cause a burning sensation or pain when the tumour is more advanced, difficulties with speech, swollen lymph nodes in the neck and bad breath.

How it is oral cancer diagnosed?

Oral cancer can be treated successfully if it is caught early, before it has a chance to spread to other parts of the body, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Determining the presence of oral cancer typically begins with a trip to a doctor or dentist who will ask about symptoms and perform an examination. Depending on the results of this exam, a patient may be referred to a specialist (typically an ear, nose and throat doctor) who can perform further testing — such as a biopsy — before arriving at a diagnosis.

Risk factors for oral cancer

In addition to age, other risk factors for oral cancer include smoking (particularly when combined with high levels of alcohol use), alcohol (risk increases with amount consumed over time, HPV (research has connected HPV infections to oral cancers), gender (oral cancer is roughly twice as common in men), diet (consuming low levels of fruits and vegetables increases risk), poor oral health (bacteria can thrive and lead to changes in cell growth), and the sun (high exposure has been linked to cancer in the lip area).

Treating oral cancer

Typically, treatment plans for oral cancer are designed on a patient-by-patient basis and are influenced by several factors, including the size, stage and location of the cancer; a patient’s health and ability to endure surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy; and the effect treatment will have on appearance and function of the area. Surgery is usually the first line of defence against oral cancers, with chemotherapy, radiation (or a combination of both) used as required. Depending on the extent of treatment, reconstructive therapy may be needed to help patients recover the ability to speak and swallow properly.

Preventing oral cancer

To decrease the chances of developing oral cancer, it is important to brush and floss your teeth daily and get regular checkups from a dentist or health professional. Dental Hygiene Canada recommends using lip balm with UV protection; using condoms to prevent an HPV infection; adhering to a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables; and quitting or reducing alcohol and tobacco use. Other things you can do to lower your risk of oral cancer is to take care of dental problems by visiting the dentist regularly and practice good oral hygiene. For children and young adults, getting the HPV vaccine is also a good preventive strategy since the vaccine target the HPV sub-types most likely to cause oral cancer.

How many Canadians have oral cancer?

It is difficult to determine the specific rate of oral cancer in Canada because these statistics are rolled into the broader category of head and neck cancers. An estimated 7,400 Canadians (5,400 men and 2,000 women) were diagnosed with head and neck cancers in 2021, with 2,100 (1,500 men; 560 women) dying from the disease. The five-year net survival rate for oral cancer is 64 per cent, meaning 64 per cent of Canadians will live for at least five years after being diagnosed.

Support for oral cancer

If you or someone you know has been affected by oral cancer, there are many resources available online to help understand the diagnosis and connect with others who are on a similar healthcare journey. A few good places to start are The Oral Cancer Foundation, Cancer Connection and Coping with Cancer.

Dave Yasvinski is a Toronto-based writer.

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