Everything You Need to Know About Oral Cancer

It’s a well-known fact that tobacco and tobacco products are the reason behind a host of deadly health risks like respiratory diseases, heart conditions, and cancer. Studies clearly show that smoking and chewing of tobacco are the highest contributors towards the risk of head and neck cancers. Due to a large number of tobacco consumers in the country, oral cancer contributes to over 30% of cancer cases and ranks as one among the top 3 most common types of cancers. Statistics show that over five people succumb to oral cancer every hour every day, that’s how widespread this cancer is in India.

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer falls under the category of head and neck cancers and develops in the mouth and throat tissues. This includes cancers of the lips, tongue, palate, gums, cheeks, and floor of the mouth. Use of tobacco like smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco is the biggest risk factor and consumption of alcohol with tobacco puts you at even greater risk.

What are the symptoms?

Some common symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Red or white patches in/on the mouth or lips
  • Sores or swelling over tongue or cheek
  • Pain during swallowing
  • Lip and mouth sores that aren’t healing
  • Loosening of teeth
  • A lump in the neck region
  • Numbness in the face and neck area

Early detection of cancer results in better, more successful clinical outcomes and even cures in many patients. Regular self-examination is highly recommended especially among smokers and tobacco chewers, and if you feel that any symptoms are not subsiding with time, it is highly recommended that you consult a doctor. Check your mouth floor, tongue, the insides like the gums and palate for any unusual lumps, spots or color changes. If any of these that you discover don’t go away in 3 weeks, get a professional opinion.

Diagnosis of Oral cancer

It starts with a close physical examination, checking the mouth, tongue, and cheeks for any suspicious growths or tumours. If anything is found, it is followed by a biopsy to check for cancerous cells. Other scans like X Ray, MRI, CT, PET or endoscopy may also be performed to examine other parts and check if cancer has spread for a more accurate image. Oral cancer is categorised into four stages:

Stage 1: Cancer has not spread and the size of the tumour is less than 2cms

Stage 2: The cancer cells still haven’t spread, but a tumour is slightly larger, about 2-4cms.

Stage 3: A tumour is now larger than 4cms and could have spread to a lymph node.

Stage 4: The tumours are large, and the cancer cells have spread to nearby tissues, lymph nodes or even other parts of the body.

Cancer treatment and chances of survival

Like most other conditions, earlier the oral cancer is detected, higher the chances of survival after treatment. If detected in Stage 1 or 2, the survival rates are over 80%; Stage 3 is around 65% while Stage 4 is 30-38%. So, timely diagnosis followed by appropriate treatment is crucial to make a satisfactory recovery. The treatment option depends on the location of cancer and the stage of diagnosis. The possible treatments include surgery to remove a tumour, radiation, chemotherapy and targeted therapy to effectively kill the cancer cells. In more advanced stages, patients may require reconstructive surgeries to compensate for the missing bones or tissues and rehabilitative help like speech therapy for functional improvement.