Understanding and preventing cancer has become a top priority in the health world. Oral cancer is no exception to this rule and may be more common than you may think. Though this particular type of cancer is often overlooked, learning the signs, treatments, and prevention of oral cancer can be a real lifesaver.
What is mouth (oral) cancer?
Cancer is a growth of malignant (abnormal) cells which may spread throughout the body. Oral cancer can span across a wide number of the mouth’s working parts. This disease can affect:
- Lining tissue of lips and cheeks
- The front two-thirds of the tongue
- The roof of the mouth (both hard palate and soft palate)
- The floor of the mouth underneath the tongue
Oral cancer is a disease of the genes; it disrupts normal cell division, creating malignant tumors that invade nearby tissue.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Oral Cancer
How do oral cancer signs appear, and what should you do if you notice them?
Though several different patterns indicate developing tumors, the answer to what to do next is clear. Call your dentist if you have any of the following symptoms of oral cancer:
- Lip or mouth sores that aren’t healing
- Loose teeth with no apparent cause
- Lumps or growths inside the mouth
- Pain or difficulty when swallowing
- Ear or mouth pain
- Persistent sore throat
- Colored patches inside the mouth that last more than two weeks
Diagnosing oral cancer will involve a physical exam with a doctor or dentist to inspect for lumps, growths, and other issues in the mouth, tonsils, or lips.
If a suspicious area is found, they may biopsy the area by removing some of the tissue to send to a lab. There, it can be tested for cancerous or precancerous cells.
If the biopsy reveals the presence of these malignant cells, further testing may be needed. This can involve imaging tests, like an x-ray or CT scan, or an endoscopy.
Stages of Mouth Cancer
Mouth cancer, and all cancers, are classified in four stages. This practice of cancer staging is crucial for assessing the treatment needed and the severity of the case.
Stage 1: the tumor, patch, or lesion is two centimeters or less in diameter. The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes.
Stage 2: the tumor is a larger size, measuring over two centimeters but under four. The cancer still has not spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage 3: two conditions can cause this classification. Either the tumor is larger than four centimeters, or is smaller but has spread to one lymph node. The disease hasn’t spread to further parts of the body.
Stage 4: the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, nearby tissues, or more than one lymph node.
Treatments for Oral Cancer
Surgery is the most traditional treatment option for patients with oral cavity cancer. Up to 56% of these cases can be resolved with surgery alone, though the severity of the stage will determine what treatment options are available.
2. Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy to kill cancer cells. This is most commonly seen as a precautionary treatment after surgery, or as a standalone treatment in extremely low-risk cases.
Chemotherapy is an oral or intravenous (IV) mixture of drugs used to kill cancer. These drugs can be used alone or combined with other cancer treatments, and are often used in conjunction with radiation therapy.
4. Targeted Therapy
Targeted therapy generally refers to prescription drugs designed to attach themselves to cancer cells. This can stop them from dividing and spreading, halting the invasion of cancer.
Targeted therapy can be used together with chemotherapy and radiation, or on its own.
Immunotherapy leverages your body’s natural cancer-fighting process: the immune system. When cancer strikes, it can sneak by the immune system by producing certain proteins.
Nutrition is an important aspect of your cancer treatment. Many patients with oral cancer experience weight loss, perhaps due to nausea after chemotherapy or difficulty chewing.
Your body needs certain nutrients to fight off this disease and the side effects you may be experiencing.
In general, a diet to support your body’s immune system and fight against cancer follows these guidelines:
- Eliminate processed foods like processed meats, packaged foods, and fast food.
- Avoid anything burnt or fried, which may contain acrylamide (a known carcinogen).
- Stay away from added and processed sugars.
- Eat a highly alkaline diet full of vegetables, antioxidant-rich fruits, and high-fiber nuts and seeds.
- Get organic, grass-fed meats instead of non-organic.
- Replace vegetable oils with healthier fats like butter, ghee, olive oil, and avocado oil.
- Eat plenty of wild-caught, organic fish.
- Drink inflammation-busting teas.
- While this kind of diet is not proven to reverse cancer, it will support your body’s immunity and reduce chronic inflammation that can accelerate the disease.
7. Good Dental Hygiene
You can boost your body’s ability to conquer cancer by practicing good oral health.
Keeping your mouth moist can aid your salivary glands in preventing decay, and keeping your teeth and gums clean can prevent further dental woes after treatment.
A prescription fluoride toothpaste or, even better, a high-strength hydroxyapatite toothpaste can also help in dealing with the sensitivity experienced by many patients undergoing chemo and/or radiation.
Lifestyle changes can boost the efficacy of cancer treatments and assist patients in coping with fatigue from battling oral cancer.
Walking for 30 minutes a day has been shown to help patients return to daily life after cancer fatigue.
Massage therapy can reduce pain and anxiety in individuals with cancer.
How to Prevent Oral Cancer
One extremely effective way to prevent oral cancer is by quitting. Saying goodbye to alcohol use and tobacco not only benefits your general health but decreases your odds of oral cancer.
If you do continue to drink alcohol, stick to one drink a day for men over 65 and women of any age, or two drinks for men 65 and younger.
Avoid all forms of smoking, and avoid the smokeless tobacco that can prime your cells for lip cancer.
Protecting your face, and especially lips, from sun exposure is another form of prevention. Try a large-brimmed hat, and use chapstick with SPF every single day.
Eat fruits and vegetables and load up on antioxidants, which help detoxify your body from potential cancer triggers.