Scientists have made remarkable strides in cancer research. Be it skin cancer, breast cancer or colorectal cancer, many types of cancers that people are diagnosed with they can fully recover from, especially if the disease is detected early on.
But there is another cancer that you may not hear discussed quite as often as breast or skin cancer. It's oral cancer, and while it's less common than the aforementioned, thousands of people around the world are diagnosed with it every year. Much like the cancers referenced, it's important to be mindful of the symptoms so you can receive the appropriate treatment.
What is oral cancer?
Oral cancer refers to any cancerous cell that forms within the mouth, whether affecting the tongue, lips, palate, inner cheeks, ceiling or floor of the mouth.
How common is oral cancer?
According to World Cancer Research Fund International, oral cancer affects approximately 377,700 people globally in a year, making it the 16th most common cancer overall, based on the most recent figures available. It's slightly more common among men than it is among women. That annual figure is significantly fewer than the 2.2 million people diagnosed with breast cancer, which is the most common cancer of all, according to the World Health Organisation. The second and third most common are lung and colon cancer, respectively.
What causes oral cancer?
In many ways, oral cancer is similar to the other types. There isn't one single thing that causes it. A combination of factors can lead to a diagnosis, including age, lifestyle, obesity, alcohol consumption and spending a lot of time outside without sunscreen. But the leading contributor to oral cancer is tobacco use. Indeed, the World Cancer Research Fund International says 90% of mouth cancers worldwide stem from tobacco consumption, be it from cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars or pipe use.
What are classic signs of oral cancer?
One of the main reasons why the mortality rates for certain cancers are as high as they are is because it can be hard to know when you're showing symptoms. For instance, skin cancer has one of the highest survivability rates. But if a cancerous growth on the skin isn't spotted early — or is mistaken for a benign mole or freckle — the treatment may not be as effective as it would be if the cancer was caught sooner.
Mouth cancer or oral cancer tends to produce a combination of symptoms, several of which may not seem all that unusual. According to the Cancer Society, these include:
- A sensation of numbness on the tongue or in other areas of the mouth.
- A red or white patch located somewhere within the mouth.
- Jaw pain that manifests itself while chewing or swallowing.
- Sore or sores that form on the lips that won't seem to heal.
- Swelling of the jaw.
None of these symptoms — whether on their own or in combination with others — necessarily mean that you have oral cancer. But if you're concerned about any of them, you may want to consult with your primary care physician. This is another reason why it's so important to visit with your dentist on a regular basis. Your dentist may be able to notice signs or symptoms that are suggestive of oral cancer. Your dentist can put your mind at ease as well by drawing from their previous experience as to what you don't need to be too concerned about.
How can you reduce your risk of oral cancer?
There isn't any one thing you can do that will 100% ensure you avoid oral cancer. But several different lifestyle behaviours can reduce your risk.
Avoid tobacco products: As previously mentioned, up to 90% of mouth cancers worldwide are believed to stem from tobacco use. If you've never smoked or chewed tobacco, continue not doing so. Otherwise, do your best to stop utilising tobacco. In addition to increasing your risk for oral cancers, it can also raise your susceptibility to lung cancer, which affects 2.2 million people globally, according to the World Health Organisation. Lung cancer is also the deadliest form of cancer, with 1.8 million dying from the disease in 2020.
Limit alcohol consumption: Several studies, including one published in the medical journal The Lancet, suggest that alcohol use in any amount can make it more likely for someone to be impacted by oral cancer. These include esophageal cancer, lip cancer and larynx cancer.
"Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss," the authors of the study wrote. "We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimises health loss is zero."
Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity is linked with many conditions and diseases, including cancer incidence. A diet that contains plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and lean proteins can help you maintain a healthy weight so your body receives all the nutrients it needs to live well.