May 23, 2010
Almost all oral cancers start in the cells lining the oral cavity (the mouth). These cells, which are flat and scale-like, are called squamous cells. When a cancer begins in these cells, it is known as a squamous cell carcinoma. The structures of the oral cavity play an important role in speech, chewing, taste and swallowing. Oral cancer is part of a group of cancers called head and neck cancers.
It is estimated that 3400 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed in Canada in 2010.
Risk factors may increase a person’s chance of developing oral cancer. The factors that increase the risk of developing oral cancer include:
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Early detection means finding a cancer or precancerous condition at an early stage. In most cases, finding cancer early increases the chances of successful treatment.
There is no screening test for oral cancer. Therefore, recognizing symptoms and getting regular checkups are the best ways to detect oral cancer early. The sooner signs and symptoms are reported, the sooner a doctor can diagnose and treat the cancer.
People who have a higher than average risk for oral cancer should discuss an individual plan for testing with their doctor. They should have a regular mouth checkup with their family doctor and dentist. A careful routine examination of the mouth can often detect early precancerous changes.
Signs and symptoms
Other health conditions can have the same signs and symptoms as oral cancer, so having any of the following symptoms does not necessarily mean a person has cancer. However, it is important to see a doctor about:
White patches (leukoplakia) or red patches (erythroplakia) on the lips or in the mouth are precancerous conditions that may become cancerous.
Diagnostic tests will be done if the signs and symptoms of oral cancer are present, or if the doctor suspects oral cancer. These tests may include:
Additional tests, such as x-rays, ultrasounds and scans, may be done to determine the stage (how far the disease has progressed).
Pathology and staging
When oral cancer has been diagnosed, tests will be done to find out:
Although oral cancer can spread to lymph nodes in the neck, this cancer does not usually spread to other body sites. However, some of the most common sites where oral cancer can spread include the:
A person’s prognosis depends on:
Each person with oral cancer will have a treatment plan designed for them by their healthcare team. The team will recommend treatment options based on the specific characteristics of the cancer and the unique needs of the person. A treatment plan for oral cancer may include one or more of the following.
Surgery is the most common treatment for oral cancer. Surgery is used to:
Radiation therapy can be used as the primary treatment for oral cancer or can be given following surgery. It can also be combined with chemotherapy. It may be given to relieve pain in cases of advanced cancer. The types of radiation therapy for oral cancer may include:
Chemotherapy used alone will not cure oral cancer. However, it can be combined with other treatments to be part of a treatment plan. The most common chemotherapy drugs used to treat oral cancer include:
A cancer diagnosis can lead to many challenges for people with cancer and their families. Each person’s experience will be different because their cancer, treatment and recovery are different. A person with oral cancer may have concerns about:
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