What is Oral Cancer?

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is cancer that occurs in and around the mouth. It kills 1 person every hour and it’s on the rise, especially amongst young people. A leading head and neck surgeon on Dr Oz called it ‘a pandemic’.

You can get oral cancer in any of the following places:

  • Tongue- this is the most common place
  • On your lips
  • Inside your cheeks roof of your mouth (palate)
  • Floor of your mouth (under your tongue)
  • Back of your mouth (tonsils and throat)
  • In your salivary glands.

Basically oral cancer can occur in any soft area in your mouth- that is anywhere other than your teeth. It is a particularly nasty form of cancer that you need to know about, and get checked for. The old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ has never been truer than in this situation and fortunately it is one of the easiest cancers to spot. It has an 80-90% cure rate with early diagnosis but 1 in 4 will die because they are not diagnosed and treated in time.

There are several types of oral cancers, but around 90% are squamous cell carcinomas- an especially nasty type of malignant cancer (1).

Oral cancers are currently responsible for up to 6.5 per cent of all the cancers diagnosed in Australia (2)
and are responsible for more Australian deaths than cervical cancer each year (3).

Survival rate is approximately 50% over 5 years, with early detection being the most critical factor (4).

Alarmingly according to one Australian study,1 in 3 patients delayed getting professional advice for over three months after first noticing the lesion. After reading this series I hope that won’t be you. (5)

So it is time to make sure you are aware of the risk factors for oral cancer, the signs and symptoms and how to know if your dentist is screening you every year.

Understanding Cancer ‘What is Cancer?’

The phrase ‘cancer’ strikes fear into everybody’s heart.

Virtually every single one of us knows someone who has some sort of cancer, been treated for it or has died from it. Because it is potentially life threatening- it is important we know about it- diagnose it quickly and treat it as best as we can.

Scary cancer statistics-1 in 2 Australians will be diagnosed with some type of cancer by the age of 85- it’s the leading cause of death in Australia; more than 43,000 people are estimated to have died from cancer in 2010 (6).

So what exactly is it?

Our bodies are made up of all sorts of different cells- each of which has specialist functions to help us live and breathe normally. These cells grow and divide to form new cells when our body needs them and those cells that are no longer required, are broken down and recycled. Your DNA guides this process.

Cancer is the term (used too loosely in my opinion) to describe when this process goes wrong and a mutation occurs in your DNA as a result of exposure to carcinogens (cancer forming substances). Cells start to behave abnormally, new ones are formed unnecessarily and old ones may not die when they should.

A tumour is a collection of these abnormal cells.

What Different Types of Tumour are there?

There are two basic types of tumour:

Benign (not cancer). These are not life threatening since they rarely invade the surrounding tissues and do not spread. Once removed they usually don’t grow back.

Malignant. This is your classic ‘cancer’ and is a serious condition, which needs urgent treatment. The tumour can grow and bits can break away, spreading throughout your body via the blood stream or lymphatic system (your body’s defensive line). This spread, (called in medicine ‘metastatis’) can lead to new tumours forming in other organs away from the first one. It is when these organs that keep you alive, such as your heart, lungs, liver and bones become affected and begin shutting down, that your life is in serious question. If oral cancer cells travel to a lung, it is called’ metastatic oral cancer’ not lung cancer- though the ultimate affect is similar. You can see why prevention is so important.

On a side note, I believe the power of our bodies to heal themselves is tremendous and the stories of tumours being healed with changes in diet and lifestyle whilst by no means common, do exist. Norman Cousins is a wonderful example.

The field of mind body medicine, made popular by such credible physicians of Eastern and Western medicine as Dr Deepak Chopra is an exciting and developing field and one I am personally interested in. Modern medicine can do amazing things and by understanding our bodies and putting ourselves in an optimum place for healing- we give ourselves the best chance of recovery.

These tumours can affect pretty much every tissue (a group of cells) in your whole body. That’s why we have so many different types of cancer– cervical cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer to name just a few. Interestingly and alarmingly, oral cancer doesn’t feature in the news very widely, yet it is now the 8th biggest cancer killer and it’s on the rise. You even have to go searching for information on head and neck cancer within some of the biggest cancer organisations to find them!

Resources and References

  1. http://www.oralcancerfoundation.org/facts/index.htm
  2. Coates M, Armstrong B. Cancer in New South Wales: Incidence and Mortality 1995. Sydney: NSW Central Cancer Registry Cancer Control Information Centre, NSW Cancer Council, 1998.
  3. McCredie M, Coates MS, Day P, Bell JC.
  4. Med J Aust 1995; 163: 520–523. Changes in cancer incidence and mortality in New South Wales.
  5. http://www.publish.csiro.au/?act=view_file&file_id=NB99044.pdf
  6. http://www.cancer.org.au/aboutcancer/factsfigures.htm
  7. Blot W, McLaughlin JK, Winn DM, et al. Smoking and drinking in relation to oral and pharyngeal cancer. Cancer Res 1988; 48: 3282–3287.8. Daftary D, Murti P, Bhonsle R, Gupta P, Mehta F, Pindborg
  8. JJ. Risk factors and risk markers for oral cancer in high incidence areas of the world
    in Risk markers for oral diseases, vol 2, Oral Cancer. Cambridge University Press, 1991: 29–62.
  9. Pindborg J, Daftary DK, Gupta P, et al. Public Health Aspects of Oral Cancer in Johnson NW, ed. Risk Markers for Oral Diseases. Cambridge University Press; 1991: 338– 388.
  10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001870/
  11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001471/
  12. http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0000Jr
  13. http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1475-2891-3-19.pdf
  14. La Vecchia C, Franceschi S, Levi F, Lucchini F, Negri E. Diet and human oral carcinoma in Europe. Eur J Cancer B. Oral Oncol 1993; 29B: 17–22.

Some useful additional information on oral cancer can be found at the Oral cancer foundation