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Throat anatomy
Throat anatomy


Mouth anatomy
Mouth anatomy


Definition:

Oral cancer is cancer of the mouth.



Alternative Names:

Cancer - mouth; Mouth cancer; Head and neck cancer; Squamous cell cancer - mouth



Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

Oral cancer most commonly involves the tissue of the lips or the tongue. It may also occur on the floor of the mouth, cheek lining, gums (gingiva), or roof of the mouth (palate).

Most oral cancers look very similar under the microscope and are called squamous cell carcinomas . These are malignant and tend to spread rapidly.

Smoking and other tobacco use are associated with 70 - 80% of oral cancer cases. Smoke and heat from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes irritate the mucous membranes of the mouth. Use of chewing tobacco or snuff causes irritation from direct contact with the mucous membranes. Heavy alcohol use is another activity associated with increased risk for oral cancer.

Other factors that increase the risk of oral cancer include poor dental and oral hygiene and chronic irritation (such as from rough teeth, dentures, or fillings). Some oral cancers begin as a white plaque ( leukoplakia ) or as a mouth ulcer . Recently, infection with HPV (human papilloma virus) has beeen shown to be a risk factor.

Oral cancer accounts for about 8% of all malignant growths. Men get oral cancer twice as often as women do, particularly men older than 40.



Symptoms:

Mucous membrane lesion, lump, or ulcer:

  • May be a deep, hard-edged crack in the tissue
  • Most often pale colored, may be dark or discolored
  • On the tongue, lip, or other mouth area
  • Usually painless at first (may develop a burning sensation or pain when the tumor is advanced)
  • Usually small

Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:



Signs and tests:

An examination of the mouth by the health care provider or dentist shows a visible or palpable (can be felt) lesion of the lip, tongue, or other mouth area. As the tumor enlarges, it may become an ulcer and bleed. Speech difficulties , chewing problems, or swallowing difficulties may develop, particularly if the cancer is on the tongue.

A tongue biopsy , gum biopsy , and microscopic examination of the lesion confirm the diagnosis of oral cancer.



Treatment:

Surgical removal of the tumor is usually recommended if the tumor is small enough. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy would likely be used when the tumor is larger or has spread to lymph nodes in the neck. Surgery may be necessary for large tumors.

Rehabilitation may include speech therapy or other therapy to improve movement, chewing, swallowing, and speech.



Support Groups:

The stress of illness can often be eased by joining a support group of people who share common experiences and problems. See cancer - support group .



Expectations (prognosis):

Approximately half of people with oral cancer will live more than 5 years after diagnosis and treatment. If the cancer is detected early, before it has spread to other tissues, the cure rate is nearly 75%. Unfortunately, more than half of oral cancers are advanced at the time the cancer is detected. Most have spread to the throat or neck.

Approximately 25% of people with oral cancer die because of delayed diagnosis and treatment.



Complications:
  • Complications of radiation therapy, including dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Other metastasis (spread) of the cancer
  • Postoperative disfigurement of the face, head, and neck


Calling your health care provider:

Oral cancer may be discovered when the dentist performs a routine cleaning and examination.

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have a lesion of the mouth or lip or a lump in the neck that does not go away within 1 month. Early diagnosis and treatment of oral cancer greatly increases the chances of survival.



Prevention:

You should have the soft tissue of the mouth examined once a year. Many oral cancers are discovered by routine dental examination.

Other tips:

  • Have dental problems corrected
  • Minimize or avoid alcohol use
  • Minimize or avoid smoking or other tobacco use
  • Practice good oral hygiene


References:

National Comprehensive Cancer Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Head and Neck Cancers. National Comprehensive Cancer Network; 2008. Version 2.2008.

Posner M. Head and neck cancer. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 200.




Review Date: 2/12/2009
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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