Posted by Dr. Julie Boudreault On 9-04-2020
Cancer. A word which is feared universally, yet sadly continues to affect millions worldwide.
Cancer refers to the uncontrolled growth of abnormal or mutated cells within the body. Normally, the growth and multiplication of cells is a tightly controlled process. It is when the control mechanisms that govern the life cycle of a cell fail to function correctly, that cancerous cells begin to originate.
Rather than completing their life cycle and dying, older cells continue to grow out of control, eventually forming new, abnormal cells. The result is the mass production of rapidly dividing cells, which form extra masses of tissue, referred to as tumours. These cancerous cells can originate in any part of the body, and in advanced stages, these cancerous cells can migrate to other parts of the body, through a process known as metastasis.
What is oral cancer?
Oral cancer affects the lips, cheeks, tongue, hard and soft palate, the floor of the mouth, sinuses, and throat. As with all types of cancers, if oral cancer isn’t detected in its early stages, it becomes much harder to treat.
Cancer, if progressed to its advanced stages, can be life-threatening and resistant to treatment. Oral cancer, in particular, affects some of the most sensitive and most-used areas of our body.
Unfortunately, more than 50,000 people develop some form of oral cancer every year, and about 10,000 of those people are fatally affected by their illness. There are certain signs of oral cancer that dentists usually look for when they examine your mouth. These signs include:
- Mouth sores which are bleeding or not healing
- White or dark red patches on your lips, mouth, or tongue
- Loose teeth
- Pain in your ear
- Poorly fitting dentures
- Lumps or growths within the lining of the mouth
- Pain in the tongue or changes in the taste and sensations on your tongue
- Pain, stiffness, or difficulty moving the tongue or jaw
- Sore throat without explanation or the feeling of something caught in your throat
- Pain when chewing, swallowing, or speaking
- Unexplained numbness, loss of feeling, or tenderness in the face, mouth and neck region
- Drastic and sudden weight loss
- Hoarseness or changes in your voice
In order to confirm whether any unusual structure, sore, or lesion in the mouth is cancerous or not, a biopsy must be performed to test for cancer cells.
How does oral cancer develop?
Oral cancer occurs in much the same way as other cancers of the body. When the DNA of cells within the mouth and surrounding area becomes mutated, these cells begin to grow and divide abnormally.
This abnormal and uncontrolled growth leads to the accumulation of cancerous cells which form a tumour. This tumour can potentially spread to other parts of the body. Now you may wonder how these genetic mutations originate.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear how and why these mutations occur; however, there are risk factors which can increase your chances of developing oral cancer, including:
- Any kind of tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco
- A weakened immune system
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Excessive exposure to the sun, especially within the lips area
- Contracting the human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Being male
- Poor diet
Having more than one risk factor can undoubtedly increase your chances of developing oral cancer; however, oral cancer can and has developed without any cause.
In some cases, oral cancer can go undiagnosed until it's advanced to its later stages and has already reached the lymph nodes. For these reasons, it’s essential to visit a dental professional for cancer screening regularly.
How to Prevent Oral Cancer
Luckily, there are some habits you can adopt to help reduce your risk of developing oral cancer, including:
Stop all tobacco use
Tobacco use is extremely harmful, not only the mouth and its surrounding areas but also for your overall health. It is widely known that smoking is one of the leading causes of lung cancer, but can also lead to cancers of the mouth, and the surrounding areas. Smoking of any kind should be stopped, but it’s also important to be aware of and avoid second-hand cigarette smoke as much as possible.
Limit alcohol consumption
More than half of the individuals who are diagnosed with oral cancer are heavy drinkers who consume alcohol regularly. In order to decrease your risk of oral cancer, it’s essential to limit the amount of alcohol you consume or avoid it entirely. Excessive alcohol consumption, in combination with tobacco use, can increase your risk of developing oral cancer.
Regular exercise can help decrease the risk of oral cancer by helping you control and maintain a healthy weight and strengthening your immune system. If you have already developed cancer, regular exercise can help reduce the spread of cancer within your bodies.
Cancerous tumours require oxygen to continue their growth and will metastasize to other parts of the body in search of it. If the body is flooded with oxygen through regular exercise, the cancerous tumours will become less active.
Eat a healthy diet
The food you choose to consume can drastically impact your body, sometimes in the short term, and definitely over time. Consuming a healthy, well-balanced diet will help you maintain a healthy weight and overall health.
You can help reduce your risks of developing oral cancer by eating several servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Additionally, green tea has also been shown to prevent the development of oral cancer or slow the growth of cancer if you’ve been diagnosed with it.
Use UV-blocking lip balm
One of the ways that the DNA within your cells undergo mutations is through excessive exposure to the sun and ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
In order to prevent the formation of cancerous cells, you should limit your exposure to sunlight and always wear sunscreen and lip balm containing SPF whenever you go outdoors. This will help protect your face and lips from UV radiation from sunlight.
Ensure your dentures fit properly
Oral cancer is not caused by dentures that do not fit snugly in your mouth; however, dentures that do not fit properly can cause several other complications. If your dentures do not fit properly, and you fail to maintain your oral health over time, you may experience irritation, inflammation, and infection, which has been linked to oral cancer.
If your dentures do not fit snugly in your mouth, it’s important to have them checked and readjusted by a dental professional, to decrease your chances of developing oral cancer.
Use condoms and dental dams to prevent HPV
The use of condoms is a great way to help reduce the spread of many sexually transmitted diseases, including HPV. Contracting the human papillomavirus can increase your chances of developing oral cancer.
Condoms and dental dams should be used any time you engage in intercourse, including through the oral route, to help lower your chances of contracting HPV or other sexually transmitted diseases.
Regularly visit the dentist for a screening
When you visit the dentist regularly for a cleaning and examination, the dentist can take a closer look at your teeth, sometimes with the help of dental X-rays. You should also make it a point to check your mouth, lips, and gums regularly for any warning signs or abnormalities.
Whether you or the dentist detect any abnormality in your mouth, the benefits of early diagnosis are many. If detected early, oral cancer can be treated, and treatment is often more effective in the early stages of cancer.
If oral cancer is not detected early, it can cause a number of serious complications, including facial surgery to reconstruct areas of your face or even death. It’s essential to always get screened by a dental professional regularly.
What does oral cancer screening involve?
Oral cancer screening is extremely beneficial and a completely painless process. A dental professional and a hygienist will examine the maxillofacial and oral regions for any suspicious signs, including red patches, lumps, sores, or hardened lesions, which are white or gray in colour.
A dental professional will use their hands to feel areas of your face, glands, and neck regions for lumps or bumps and then use a dental laser to look for any lesions which cannot be seen by the naked eye.
Cancer is no easy battle to fight, and oral cancer is no exception. Being aware of the signs and symptoms and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one of the best ways to protect yourself from developing oral cancer.