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What is Oral Cancer?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 January 2018
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Oral cancer refers to the growth of cancerous cells in the mouth, on the lips, on the tongue, in the sinuses, and in the throat or pharynx. It’s important to pay attention to signs of oral cancer, and these can vary depending upon where the cancer is present. Early diagnosis does improve outlook and prognosis tremendously, so all people should be aware of common signs of this condition.

People should see doctors if they notice swellings, bumps or sores in the mouth or on the lips that don’t heal after about two weeks. When the mouth bleeds regularly and with no explanation, this may also be a symptom of oral cancer. Some people notice sores on the face or neck, in addition to having sores in the mouth. Other symptoms of oral cancers can include ear pain, persistent hoarseness in the throat or difficulty swallowing, a feeling that something is caught in the throat, and rapid weight loss. Another common sign is white patches or white stripes in the mouth.

Most people don’t have all of these symptoms. Instead, they may have one or two symptoms at onset of oral cancer. Doctors recommend people see a physician if they detect the presence of one of these symptoms. They can indicate other conditions, and many of these conditions require treatment too, so people benefit by being cautious and checking out these potential warning signs with their doctors.

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Some physicians recommend seeing a dentist instead, if sores or white patches are noted in the mouth. It can also help to see a dentist on a regular basis. Two cleanings a year may be a great way to screen for oral cancer, especially if the dentist performs an oral exam. If a dentist finds any suspicious lesions, he can biopsy them.

Due to the large area over which oral cancer can be spread, treatment and diagnosis are variable. Like many forms of cancer, emphasis is on removing cancerous cells and then using chemotherapy and/or radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells. The trouble with removal of cancerous cells is that in some people it can affect survivability of teeth and ability to talk. This is another reason it is essential to get early diagnosis of oral cancer, so that removal of cancerous cells doesn’t impact normal use of mouth and throat later.

There are certain people more likely to get oral cancer. These include people who drink alcohol and those who use tobacco products. Smoking is especially risky and results in about 70-80% of all oral cancers. Sometimes viruses may cause these cancers, and this may be especially the case when the cancer affects young adults. Another common cause, especially of cancer on the lips, is frequent sun exposure.

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