Oral Cancer: Symptoms, Causes & Prevention

by Jinal Gangar last updated -

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Over 53000 people are estimated to be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2019 in the United States alone. The fact that more than 20 percent of these patients will be nearly facing death, makes it extremely important to take necessary actions to know how oral cancer happens and prevent it from occurring.

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer, also widely known as mouth cancer, is a type of head and neck cancer. It can start in the cells of any part of the mouth and cause damage to the tissue. The various parts of your mouth that can get affected by cancer are:

  • Tongue
  • Lips
  • Gums
  • Cheeks (inner lining)
  • Hard and soft palate
  • Under the tongue
  • Sinuses
  • Throat

colse up shot of a person having sores

Stages of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is divided into 4 stages on the basis of the size of the tumor.

  • Stage 1: The tumor size is less than 2 centimeters and it has not yet reached near the lymph nodes.
  • Stage 2: The tumor size is between 2-4 centimeters but has not reached near the lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3: The tumor size is over 4 centimeters and has/has not spread to a nearby lymph node towards the same side of the neck as cancer. It is smaller than 3 centimeters across the lymph node.
  • Stage 4: The tumor has spread to other parts of the mouth like lips and oral cavity or other parts of the body. Alternatively, it could have possibly affected one or both lymph nodes.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

The most common signs and symptoms of oral cancer are:

  • Sores or ulcers in the mouth that are not healing
  • Red or white patches on the lining of the mouth
  • Swelling or lump on the inside of the mouth
  • A feeling of something being stuck in the throat
  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • Difficulty in swallowing food
  • Abnormal voice (hoarseness)
  • Mouth or jaw pain
  • Ear and neck pain
  • Loose teeth
  • Persistent weight loss

Causes of Oral Cancer

There are various causes and risk factors that increase your chances of cancer. As per the data from the American Cancer Society, tobacco use and alcohol are the two most prominent causes of cancer. Tobacco chewing or smoking in the form of pipe, cigars, cigarettes, etc. can elevate your risk of cancer even more. Research also reveals that 7 out of 10 oral cancer patients are most likely heavy drinkers.

There are other many other risk factors aside from tobacco and alcohol that are also found to cause cancer. They are:

  • Excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays
  • Sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Usage of smokeless tobacco such as betel quid, areca nut, and gutka
  • Poor nutrition and weak immunity
  • Graft-versus-host disease
  • Inherited defects in the genes
  • Bad dental hygiene practice

How Fast Does Oral Cancer Spread?

If oral cancer is found at its initial stage, nine out of ten people will be cured. However, only half of the oral cancer cases are diagnosed early on.

A report from MedlinePlus suggests that people with less than 10 years of smoking history may show better results. But if a person keeps using alcohol and tobacco even after treatment, cancer can recur.

How To Prevent Oral Cancer?

There are simple ways to protect yourself and your family from oral cancer.

  • Try to avoid using tobacco as much as possible.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption.
  • Practice safe sex to avoid HPV infection.
  • Use a sunscreen if you stay out during the middle of the day.
  • Make sure to get your dental problems treated.
  • Eat a wholesome diet.
  • Follow good oral hygiene.
  • See your dentist regularly.

picture of a hand refusing to take a cigarette offered

Moreover, there are timely reminders in the form of campaigns like Oral Cancer Awareness Month, which takes place in April every year to ensure good oral health.

Ultimately, the best you can do is look at this condition holistically and take imperative measures. As precisely said by Rengaswamy Sankaranarayanan, MD, in his book Disease Control Priorities, “A multifaceted approach that integrates health education, tobacco and alcohol control, early detection, and early treatment is needed to reduce the burden of this eminently preventable cancer.”

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About the Author

Jinal is an MBA in finance from Mumbai University and an ex-banker. She is a wellness writer who spends her weekdays around words at Organic Facts and manages YouTube channel and social media handles- FB and Instagram. On weekends you can find her in coffee houses, movie halls, and shopping malls. Positivity drives her, and she finds peace in cooking, reading, and coffee!

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