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Oral Cancer Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

by Azka Munir · December 1, 2020

Oral cancer happens when a tumor forms and grows inside of the mouth. Oral cancer grows as a sore in the mouth that remains for a very long time. It can grow on the lips, the inner lining of cheeks, tongue, pharynx, floor or bottom part of the mouth, gums, roof or top part of the mouth and palate. Adults over the age of 55 are more susceptible to developing oral cancer. Men are considered two times more likely than women to get mouth cancer. This is usually linked with men consuming more alcohol than women. This post will highlight all you need to know about oral cancer.



Types of Oral Cancer

The most common type of is squamous cell cancer. Found inside the mouth, it is the cancer responsible for 9 out of 10 cases of this cancer. That is why more common places to have this cancer are the roof, floor of the mouth and gums.


There are also certain areas where this cancer is not that likely to occur however, less, the chances do exist. Inside the saliva producing salivary glands adenocarcinoma, which is a type of cancer can develop. It can develop from issues in bone and muscle tissue (sarcoma), in the cells in lymph glands (lymphoma) and in the form of dark bleeding swellings that form in melanocytes (oral malignant melanoma).
Oropharyngeal cancer is also a type where it begins in the mid of the throat. Oral and oropharyngeal cancers like any other cancer such as head and neck cancer, need immediate treatment.



Causes and Risks of Oral cancer

Oral cancers develop mostly from the mutation of the thinly lined squamous cells in the mouth and lips known as squamous cell carcinoma. It can be spread through the lymphatic system or to the nearby tissues by mutation. It can also spread to other parts of the body termed as metastatic oral cancer. One of the leading causes of this cancer is thought to be tobacco use.
businessman with oral cancer on the blue background

Even if smoking takes the lead other risk can contribute as much to the development of oral cancer and in fact increase the risk of cancer. These include:

  • Consuming alcohol. Men are considered more likely to get oral cancer for consuming more alcohol. Alcohol is carcinogenic and can alter the DNA of the cells.  Therefore along with tobacco, it is a leading cause of getting this cancer.
  • Smokers, people who consume pipe cigarettes, cigars are six times more probable to get this cancer.
  • Using smokeless tobacco products like chewing tobacco and snuff can get one chance of up to 50 times more than non-consumers.
  • Cancer existing in the family history
  • Having a lot of sun exposure when young
  • Chewing betel nuts. Betel nuts are carcinogenic and this practice is prevalent in South Asia leading to many people developing this cancer.
  • Insufficient oral hygiene. Even if less, the chances of developing oral cancer due to broken teeth leading to ulcers do exist.
  • There are some types of Human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause a cancerous growth of tissues in the mouth.
  • Having an unhealthy diet can result in developing this cancer over time.


Symptoms of Oral cancer

The most symptom of oral cancer is developing mouth sores in the mouth and neck that do not go away after several days. These sores can be on the mouth or lips and are painful. There can also be painful swellings in the mouth along with thick lumps formation in the mouth and neck that is persistent.
oral cancer symptoms
Another common symptom is the formation of white and red patches in the lining of the mouth. These patches can also be considered the first few signs of oral cancer and action should be taken immediately if you have found them.
If there is unusual bleeding in your mouth then that could be a symptom of oral cancer. If you feel difficulty chewing and swallowing then check as it is a symptom. There can be numbness or loss of feeling in the lower lip, chin, and mouth which could later lead to this cancer. If you experience chronic sore throat or an unexplained change in voice then that could be leading to this cancer. Other signs and symptoms of cancer include losing teeth, having mouth, and ear pain, not being able to wear your regular dentures and lisping.



Treatment and Diagnosis of Oral Cancer

First and foremost a physical exam is carried out to thoroughly examine the mouth and throat, lymph nodes, tongue by your dentist or doctor. If they find nothing suspicious, you are sent to an ENT(ear, nose and throat) specialist. If unfortunately a tumor or abnormal lesion is detected then the doctor will carry out a biopsy to get further clarity. The brush biopsy can be painless and can be collected by brushing the tumor while tissue biopsy scraps some tissues for examination. Other than that there can be several tests like the dental X-ray, CT scan to examine the rest of the body for the spread of cancer and an MRI to detect the cancer growth in head and neck.
oral cancer colorful word with stethoscope on wooden background

If diagnosed, this cancer like every other cancer has four stages of development. In stage 1, the tumor of squamous cells or other types is usually less than 2cm and has not spread to the lymph nodes. Then stage 2, the tumor can range between 2 to 4 cm without spreading further. In stage 3 of this cancer, the tumor might get larger than 4cm and not spread or be of any size but is already spread to one lymph node. In stage 4, the tumor’s size can vary but the cancerous cells have now spread to any part of the body. The survival rate in 5 years for cancer that has not spread is 83 percent, hence if detected early this cancer has a high likelihood of being treated.

The treatment of oral cancer depends on the type of cancer and the stage that it has been found on. The procedure followed then takes into consideration what is most beneficial to the patient and how effectively it can be treated. Surgery is usually recommended for Stage 1 oral cancer. In the early development of the cancer, the tumor can be taken out along with a few more tissues and lymph nodes that have been affected.

Radiation therapy is another way that usually goes alongside chemotherapy. Radiation includes the doctor using radiation beams to aim at the tumor. This process happens for five days a week for a period of two to eight weeks depending on the stage of the cancer. Chemotherapy is a drug treatment either given orally or by an IV line which consists of powerful chemicals that are supposed to kill the cancerous cells.

Another less talked about treatment is targeted therapy, which can be applied to both early and later stages. Target therapy medicines are used to attack specific proteins on cancerous cells and hinder their growth. Another overlooked element of treatment is how other than the drugs and medical treatments, nutrition is important in maintaining oral hygiene. Having the mouth swollen and with lumps, it is harder to eat but consuming fewer nutrients in the painful treatment of this cancer will only drain you further. Hence it is best to consult a nutritionist to prepare the best diet for a cancer patient so that they do not weaken further.



Recovery from Oral Cancer

While small tumors and early stage detection may not have long-lasting problems or pain, chemotherapy and radiation therapy usually are painful for the patients. However, removing large tumors can be more bothersome later on than just causing some pain and swelling. Another surgery might be required for the rehabilitation of the bones to be able to chew and communicate properly.
Red and white ribbon awareness.

Radiation therapy can have side effects like dry and sore mouth, nausea, gums bleeding, being unable to wear dentures, thyroid issues, skin dryness and jaw pain. Chemotherapy can cause hair loss and extreme weakness. As well as numbness caused in hands and feet, nausea, pain in mouth and sores in mouth. Targeted therapy usually does not lead to severe side effects. The patient may undergo some fever and diarrhea. While these treatments inevitably have side effects, they are more necessary in treating oral cancer. However, it is upon the patient and the doctor to decide what treatment would be their preferred method.

Since, the treatment can affect the shape of your mouth, reconstructing surgery might be crucial. Since the treatments focus on removing tissues and bones, artificial implants can be used to repair and reconstruct the bones and tissues.

If the surgery or therapies have interfered with the speaking ability of the patient then speech therapy can be useful for the patient to regain their speaking confidence and clarity.




There is no one full-proof way to prevent this cancer.  However, there are always ways to reduce its occurrence or recurrence.
If you are a smoker, stop now.  One of the leading reasons of oral cancer, consumption of tobacco either in the form of cigarettes or non smoking tobacco products should be stopped immediately. Smoking can also lead to lung cancer so it is better to stop consuming carcinogenic tobacco from now on.
Drink less frequently or not at all: Alongside tobacco, alcohol is also a leading cause of this cancer. Hence, people should drink less and binge drinking should not be an option. Alcohol can also irritate the cells in the mouth hence making them more susceptible to becoming cancerous. Therefore, it is better to avoid it or at least drinking less frequently.
Reducing sun exposure or better avoiding it: Using a sunscreen is a must. However, also try to find a lip balm with an SPF value to protect your lips from getting UV rays. The lower lip is especially susceptible to catching the harmful UV rays and gettingcancer.
Consult your dentist regularly: Having regular checkups with the dentist can guarantee early diagnosis of any oral cancer development. Moreover getting checked regularly would mean that your oral hygiene is maintained. Hence,  there might be less chances of getting it anyway. The treatment and recovery of Oral Cancer is largely dependent on the stage it was discovered. Having diagnosed at stage1 or stage 2 cancer is better as it is easily treatable. Only if the cancer has spread it reduced the chances of survival in five years from 84 percent to 65 percent. Hence, it is better to avoid any excruciating treatment. Quitting smoking, drinking less or none, moreover, visiting the dentist regularly can help at keeping this painful disease at bay.

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