Being Well

Understanding Oral Cancer: What You Should Know

Oral cancer may affect how you eat and keep up on oral hygiene. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your habits during treatment.

Oral cancer affects thousands of Americans each year and has the potential to alter certain parts of your daily life. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with mouth cancer, you can take certain precautions to alleviate some symptoms.

Types of Oral Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 90 percent of cancers of the mouth and throat are called squamous cell cancers, originating from cells in the squamous cells, which are flat scale-like cells that line your mouth and throat. About 5 percent are verrucous carcinoma, which is a slow growing cancer that usually doesn’t spread to other parts of your body. Verrucous, carcinoma, however slow, can penetrate deep into the surrounding tissue. A small percentage of oral cancer can originate from the glands in your mouth, such as the salivary glands or parotid glands.

There are multiple risk factors strongly associated with mouth cancers. Most of which are causes of cancers in other parts of your body as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff can cause mouth or throat cancer. Other causes include heavy alcohol use, excessive sun exposure of your lips and the human papilloma virus (HPV).

Symptoms to Look For

There are certain things in your oral cavity that you or your dentist may notice that are a potential sign of cancer. Outside of your mouth, you want to be weary of sores that won’t heal or the skin around your mouth thickening, according to the Mayo Clinic. You may experience pain in your jaw, tongue and throat, which may make chewing and swallowing difficult. You may feel a loose tooth and see white patches inside your mouth. Additionally, your cancer diagnosis could lead to unusual bleeding in your mouth and chronic ear pain, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.

What It Means If You’re Diagnosed

Oral cancer affects almost 50,000 people, with almost a fifth dying from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Once you’re diagnosed with this type of cancer, your chance of surviving to 5 years is around 64 percent says the National Cancer Institute. This largely depends, however, on how advanced the cancer is and whether it has spread to other parts of your body. If it’s localized, the survival odds jump to around 83 percent.

The most important determinant of your treatment once you’re diagnosed is what stage the cancer is in and where the site of your cancer is located, such as your mouth, tongue or throat. Your doctor determines this by looking at the cancer cells under the microscope, and checking your local lymph nodes as well as the rest of your body for additional signs of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, the treatments will likely include surgery to remove the tumor along with radiation therapy and possibly chemotherapy.

When you’re diagnosed, your oral hygiene routine may need to change. You first should quit using tobacco products. You’ll want to use a soft-bristle toothbrush, avoid mouthwashes with alcohol, floss daily and rinse your mouth regularly throughout the day, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. If you have problems swallowing, you may need to soften your food with liquids and avoid overly cold or hot foods.

If you think your eating and drinking habits will need to be adjusted, talk to your doctor about your concerns. Mouth cancer may affect your daily life, but there are steps to take to minimize the impact.

Are you worried your smoking habit could lead to cancer? Talk to your doctor about quitting plans.

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Larry Istrail
Larry Istrail