Oral Cancer

What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer, or oral cancer, is a cancer that develops in any part of your mouth. This includes your tongue, under your tongue, your gums, your lips, the roof of your mouth and inside your cheeks.

Finding mouth cancer saves lives: mouth cancer can be cured if detected early. Treatment for the early stages may require surgery or radiotherapy, although if the disease spreads, surgery is more likely to be necessary.

The early signs of mouth cancer

  • A red or white patch that lasts for more than three weeks
  • An ulcer that lasts for more than three weeks
  • A lump or swelling that lasts for more than three weeks

Many of these early signs might seem similar to normal problems in your mouth. However normal problems will clear up by themselves in two or three weeks.

Problems that last for three weeks or longer should be brought to the attention of your dentist.

What preventive actions can I take?

VISIT THE DENTIST
Dental professionals check your mouth for early signs of mouth cancer during routine dental examinations. More thorough oral cancer examinations may include a very detailed look at the soft tissue of your mouth, including feeling your tongue and the protective lymph glands in your neck. In the event that a suspicious site is located, a biopsy may be recommended including a referral to a cancer specialist. New diagnostic tests are being developed to try and assist in the identification of potentially cancerous lesions at their earliest stages.

ELIMINATE OR RESTRICT TOBACCO USE
Tobacco use of any kind (e.g. cigarettes, cigars, pipes-including shisha- or chewing tobacco) increases the risk of developing mouth cancer. Chemicals in tobacco can damage your mouth leading to cancer. The degree to which tobacco increases your risk of mouth cancer is determined by how much and how frequently you use it. If you use tobacco and drink alcohol, the risk of developing mouth cancer increases by up to 40 times when compared to those who neither smoke nor drink alcohol. If you wish to quit smoking and need help, your dental professional can advise you on effective strategies that may include counselling or medication specifically designed to help people quit tobacco use.

ELIMINATE OR RESTRICT ALCOHOL USE
Alcohol use of any kind increases the risk of developing mouth cancer. Chemicals in alcohol or produced from alcohol can damage your mouth leading to cancer. The degree to which alcohol increases your risk of mouth cancer is determined by how much and how frequently you drink. If you wish to quit alcohol and need help, your dental professional can advise you on effective strategies that may include counselling or medication specifically designed to help people quit alcohol use.

CONSIDER THE FAMILY CANCER HISTORY
People who have had cancer of the mouth, throat, windpipe or food pipe (oesophagus) have an increased risk of getting a second cancer. People may have an increased risk of mouth cancer if they have had some other types of cancer such as of the oesphagus, skin, cervix, anus or genitals. There appears to be a slightly higher risk of getting mouth cancer if you have a close relative who has had mouth cancer. It is important that you tell your doctor or dentist about any previous malignancies in the family and have regular examinations.

What are the known risk indicators?

  • Mouth cancers are more common in older people, particularly men.
  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes and chewing betel can cause mouth cancer.
  • Drinking alcohol increases your risk of mouth cancer, especially when combined with smoking.
  • Some mouth cancers have been linked with the HPV-16 virus (this can be sexually transmitted).
  • Sun exposure is a risk for lip cancers.
  • People who have had cancer of the mouth, wind or food pipe have an increased risk of a second cancer developing in similar areas.
  • Most of the above risk indicators for mouth cancer are also risk indicators for many other cancers and diseases.

Where can I find out more?

There are many public resources available if you have questions about mouth cancer, quitting tobacco or limiting your alcohol consumption, or other issues. Here are just a few:

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