Oral cancer is cancer that develops within the mouth or oral cavity. It’s one of a group of cancers involving the head and neck. The majority of oral cancers start in the cells that line the mouth and throat and are classified as squamous cell carcinoma.
Here are four important facts about oral cancer:
1. Oral cancer is divided into stages.
Similar to other types of cancers, oral cancer is dived into stages. The stage depends on how big the tumor is and whether or not the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs. Oral cancer is staged based on the TNM staging system:
- T indicates the size of the tumor
- N indicates if the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes
- M indicates if the tumor has spread to other more distant parts of the body
You will need to undergo tests or examinations to find out the stage of your cancer. These tests may include a CT scan, MRI scan, X-ray, endoscopy, or PET scan.
2. Smokers and heavy drinkers have the highest risk of developing oral cancer.
Smoking and excessive drinking in combination can significantly increase your risk of oral cancer. Some studies suggest that heavy drinkers who are also smokers are up to 100 times more likely to be diagnosed with oral cancer than those who don’t drink or smoke.
3. Spending long periods of time in the sun is an easily preventable risk factor.
Sun exposure, not wearing sunscreen, or going to a tanning salon increases your chances developing lip cancer. While oral cancers from UV rays have decreased in recent years, this is likely related to more awareness and protection from the sun. Wearing lip balm with SPF protection helps protect your lips from excessive sun exposure.
4. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential.
The early symptoms of oral cancer, such as lip or mouth sores and persistent pain, are often mistaken for other health conditions. Seeing your dentist regularly is one of the easiest and best ways to ensure early detection. If your dentist or doctor suspects oral cancer, you will undergo a physical exam as well as a biopsy.
Most mouth symptoms will not turn out to be cancer. But if you have any unexplained or persistent symptoms, you should see your dentist or medical provider as soon as possible. If you do have oral cancer, getting diagnosed and treated early can improve your chance of curative treatment.
Questions to ask your doctor
If you’re diagnosed with oral cancer, talking regularly with your doctor is essential to making informed choices about your healthcare. Bring this list of questions to your next appointment:
- What type and stage of cancer do I have?
- What is the goal of treatment? Is it curative or palliative?
- What treatments are available?
- What is your treatment recommendation?
- What are the pros and cons of these treatment options?
- What are the potential side effects?
- What can I do to lessen the side effects of treatment?
- How frequently will I need to go to the hospital for treatment?
- Are there any investigational treatments or clinical trials that may help me?
- Is there a counselor here I could talk to?
- How frequently will you see me after my treatment is completed?
- What are the next steps?