Oral cancer, or mouth cancer, is a generic term that covers a large number of different types of cancer. Oral cancer can affect the underside of your tongue, the floor of your mouth, the roof of your mouth, your gums and the inside of your cheeks. There are also types of cancer that can affect the salivary glands, the tonsils and the lips.Your dentist has a vital role to play in looking out for symptoms of oral cancer. You should view your dentist as the expert who takes care of your oral health rather than someone who simply looks after your teeth. You should visit your dentist regularly for check-ups.
The number of cases of mouth cancer is rising. Since the 1990s the number of cases of oral cancer in the UK has increased by nearly 30% for men in their forties and by nearly 25% for women. Health experts put this increase down to changes in lifestyle such as the increase in smoking and alcohol consumption, especially of spirits.
While in the initial stages of mouth cancer you may not feel any pain, you may notice mild symptoms such as persistent mouth ulcers that do not heal within a couple of weeks. You may also notice that it is sore to talk, eat or move your tongue. You may notice numbness in your mouth or a discoloured area on your tongue or cheek. The symptoms may be mild but the noticeable element may be the fact that you can’t get rid of them.
The causes of mouth cancer are uncertain, but health experts believe that the following might be contributory factors:
Look out for symptoms and consult your dentist if you are worried about anything. The presence of symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have cancer, and there are two important elements in the detection of cancer. Firstly, a specialist needs to identify whether cancer is present. This requires a biopsy which involves taking a tissue sample from the affected area and analysing it in a laboratory. If the biopsy is positive, the specialist at the hospital will carry out more tests to find out the extent of the cancer, with x-rays or other modern imaging techniques such as MRI.
Apart from avoiding smoking and excess alcohol, the best protection against oral cancer is early detection which greatly increases the possibility of successful treatment. Treatment at this stage is much more straightforward, much less debilitating for the patient and offers more chance of success.
If you think you have any of the symptoms of oral cancer you should speak to your dentist or GP immediately.
If the cancer has been detected early enough, it can usually be removed through surgery. If the cancer is very small then this may be a very simple procedure. In some cases the procedure can be carried out under local anaesthetic. If the cancer has spread, other treatment options in addition to surgery may include radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
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