Oral Cancer

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Oral Cancer

Topic Overview

Oral cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in any part of the mouth or lips. Most oral cancers start in the lining of the lips or mouth where you have thin, flat cells called squamous cells.

Risk factors (things that increase your risk) for oral cancer include smoking (or using smokeless tobacco) and heavy alcohol use. Other risk factors are being male, using marijuana, or having human papillomavirus (HPV). For cancers of the lip, exposure over a long period of time to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or from tanning beds increases risk.

Symptoms for oral cancer include sores or lumps on the lips or in your mouth. Talk to your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • A sore on your lip or in your mouth that bleeds easily and does not heal
  • A lump or thickening on your lips, gums, cheek, or in your mouth
  • A white or red patch on your gums, your tongue, tonsils, or the lining of your mouth
  • A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in your throat
  • Unexplained difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving your jaw or tongue
  • Numbness or pain in your tongue or other areas of your lips or mouth
  • Swelling in your jaw that makes your teeth loose or your dentures fit poorly
  • Changes in your voice
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia)

Your dentist or doctor may look closely at your lips, mouth, or throat to check for signs of oral cancer. Other tests may be needed if there are possible signs of cancer, such as a biopsy, an X-ray, or an MRI.

Oral cancer is usually treated with surgery and radiation therapy. Your treatment will depend on the stage of your cancer and your other health factors. If the cancer is advanced, other treatments such as chemotherapy may be used.

For additional information on oral cancer, see the following topics:

Prevention

Researchers are studying how people can make changes in their lifestyles to reduce their risk for cancer. One lifestyle change that may reduce the risk for oral cancer is eating fruits and fibre-rich vegetables.

Take the following steps to prevent oral cancer:

  • Don't use tobacco in any form.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Use sun protection on your lips, such as a lip balm that has sunscreen or a coloured lipstick.
  • Get dental checkups twice a year so that signs of oral cancer can be detected early.

Some combinations, such as using tobacco and drinking alcohol, increase the risk more than using tobacco or drinking alcohol. The same is true for using marijuana if you have high-risk HPV infection.

What To Think About

Treatment for oral cancer is usually provided by a team of doctors who are experts in treating head and neck cancers. The team may include a medical oncologist, a head and neck surgeon, an oral (maxillofacial) surgeon, or a radiation oncologist. Depending on your treatment, you may have help from other specialists, such as a speech therapist or a plastic surgeon.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials for oral cancer look at new ways to treat oral cancer. Treatments being studied include:

  • Chemotherapy.
  • Hyperfractionated radiation therapy, which is giving the total dose of radiation therapy in many small treatments, often more than one a day.
  • Hyperthermia therapy, where body tissue is heated above normal temperatures. This kills cancer cells or makes them more sensitive to radiation or medicines.

Sometimes a clinical trial offers the best treatment choice. Your medical team will let you know if there is a clinical trial that might be good for you. For more information, see www.cancer.gov/clinical_trials or http://clinicaltrials.gov. This U.S. government website includes information on clinical trials in Canada.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Canadian Cancer Society
10 Alcorn Avenue
Suite 200
Toronto, ON  M4V 3B1
Phone: (416) 961-7223
Fax: (416) 961-4189
Email: ccs@cancer.ca
Web Address: http://cancer.ca
 

The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) is a national, community-based organization that provides information about cancer prevention, care, and treatment. The CCS also provides funding for cancer research.


Canadian Dental Association
1815 Alta Vista Drive
Ottawa, ON  K1G 3Y6
Phone: (613) 523-1770
Email: reception@cda-adc.ca
Web Address: www.cda-adc.ca
 

The Canadian Dental Association, the professional membership organization of dentists, provides information regarding oral health care for children and adults.


Canadian Society of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery
P.O. Box 221 Millford Crescent
Elora, ON  N0B 1S0
Phone: 1-800-655-9533
(519) 846-0630
Fax: (519) 846-9529
Email: cso.hns@symatico.ca
Web Address: www.entcanada.org
 

The Canadian Society of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery provides information for health professionals and can help you locate a doctor in your area.


Oral Cancer Foundation
3419 Via Lido
#205
Newport Beach, CA 92663
Phone: (949) 646-8000
Email: info@oralcancerfoundation.org
Web Address: www.oralcancerfoundation.org
 

The Oral Cancer Foundation is dedicated to educating the public and professionals about oral cancer. The foundation works to spread awareness of prevention through lifestyle changes and promotes early detection. It also sponsors research to find better ways to treat oral cancer.


U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI)
6116 Executive Boulevard
Suite 300
Bethesda, MD  20892-8322
Phone: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
Web Address: www.cancer.gov (or https://cissecure.nci.nih.gov/livehelp/welcome.asp# for live help online)
 

The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a U.S. government agency that provides up-to-date information about the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer. NCI also offers supportive care to people who have cancer and to their families. NCI information is also available to doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. NCI provides the latest information about clinical trials. The Cancer Information Service, a service of NCI, has trained staff members available to answer questions and send free publications. Spanish-speaking staff members are also available.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • American Joint Committee on Cancer (2010). Lip and oral cavity. In AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, 7th ed., pp. 29–40. New York: Springer.
  • Mendenhall WM, et al. (2008). Oral cavity section of Treatment of head and neck cancers. In VT DeVita et al., eds., DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology, 8th ed., vol. 1, pp. 829–877. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • National Cancer Institute (2010). Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer PDQ: Treatment—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/lip-and-oral-cavity/HealthProfessional.
  • National Cancer Institute (2010). Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer PDQ: Treatment—Patient Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/lip-and-oral-cavity/patient.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2010). Head and neck cancers. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, Version 2. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/head-and-neck.pdf.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Andrew Swan, MD, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Arden Christen, DDS, MSD, MA, FACD - Dentistry
Last Revised April 25, 2011

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