Smilemakers
Beaufort House
Hamble Lane
Bursledon
Southampton
SO31 8BR

Oral Cancer

Oral Cancer
Information about the symptoms and causes of oral cancer

Oral cancer is a cancer of the mouth and throat that most commonly begins in the tongue and floor of the mouth. Generally speaking it is an uncommon cancer accounting for 1 in 50 of all cases of cancer and in the majority of cases is linked to smoking and alcohol consumption.

The majority of oral cancer cases first develop in older adults aged around 60.

Although cases can occur in younger adults. It is thought that infection with HPV may be responsible for most cases in younger people.

Oral cancer is more common in men than women. This is thought to be due to the fact that, on average, men drink more alcohol than women.

Who can be affected by oral cancer?

Anyone can be affected by oral cancer, whether they have their own teeth or not. Mouth cancers are more common in people over 40, particularly men. However, research has shown that mouth cancer is becoming more common in younger patients and in women. There are, on average, almost 6000 new cases of mouth cancer diagnosed in the UK each year. The number of new cases of mouth cancer is on the increase.

What causes oral cancer?

Most cases of oral cancer are linked to tobacco and alcohol. Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking are the main forms of tobacco use in the UK. However, the traditional ethnic habits of chewing tobacco, betel quid, gutkha and paan are particularly dangerous.

Alcohol increases the risk of oral cancer, and if tobacco and alcohol are consumed together the risk is even greater. Over-exposure to sunlight can also increase the risk of cancer of the lips.

Many recent reports have linked oral cancer to the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer and affects the skin that lines the moist areas of the body.

HPV can be spread through oral sex, and research now suggests that it could soon rival smoking and drinking as one of the main causes of mouth cancer.

Practicing safe sex and limiting the number of partners you have may help reduce your chances of contracting HPV.

Dental Check-ups

Oral cancer is often symptomless in the early stages but can often be spotted by your dentist during a dental check-up - if recognised early the chances of a cure are good. Many people with mouth cancer go to their dentist or doctor too late.

What are the signs and symptoms of oral cancer?

Oral cancer can appear in different forms and can affect all parts of the mouth, tongue and lips. Mouth cancer can appear as a painless mouth ulcer that does not heal normally. A white or red patch in the mouth can also develop into a cancer. It is important to visit your dentist if these areas do not heal within three weeks.

Symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Red, or red and white, patches on the lining of your mouth or tongue
  • One or more mouth ulcers that do not heal after three weeks
  • A swelling in your mouth that lasts for more than three weeks
  • Pain when swallowing (dysphagia)
  • A tooth, or teeth, that become loose for no obvious reason
  • A persistent pain in the neck
  • A hoarse voice
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unusual changes in your sense of taste
  • Earache
  • The lymph nodes (glands) in your neck become swollen
When to seek medical advice

Many of the symptoms listed above can also be caused by less serious conditions, such as minor infections, that do not usually require a medical diagnosis.

It is strongly recommended that you visit your GP if you develop any of the symptoms listed above and they last for more than three weeks. Symptoms of an infection usually clear up much sooner than this. It is especially important to seek medical advice if you are a heavy drinker or smoker.

What happens if my dentist or doctor finds a problem?

If something unusual or abnormal is found then you will be referred to a consultant at the local hospital, who will carry out a thorough examination of your mouth and throat. A small sample of the cells may be gathered from the area (a biopsy), and these cells will be examined under the microscope to see what is wrong.

What happens next?

If the cells are cancerous, more tests will be carried out. These may include overall health checks, blood tests, x-rays or scans. These tests will decide what course of treatment is needed.

Can oral cancer be cured?

Over 1,800 people in the UK die from oral cancer every year. Many of these deaths could be prevented if the cancer was caught early enough. As it is, people with mouth cancer are more likely to die than those having cervical cancer or melanoma skin cancer.

If diagnosed at an early stage, a complete cure is often possible using a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. An estimated 4 out of 5 people with early-stage oral cancer will live at least five years after their diagnosis, and many for a lot longer.

If diagnosed at an advanced stage, when the cancer has spread out of the mouth and into surrounding tissue, the outlook is poor: only 1 in 5 people will live for at least five years after their diagnosis.

Treatment

There are three main treatment options for oral cancer:

  • Surgery – where the surgeon removes the cancerous cells, and in some cases, some of the surrounding tissue
  • Chemotherapy – where powerful medications are used to kill cancerous cells
  • Radiotherapy – where high energy X-rays are used to kill cancerous cells

These treatments are often used in combination. For example, a course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy may be given after surgery to help prevent the cancer from returning.

How can I make sure that my mouth stays healthy?

Most cases of oral cancer are linked to tobacco and alcohol. Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking are the main forms of tobacco use in the UK. However, the traditional ethnic habits of chewing tobacco, betel quid, gutkha and paan are particularly dangerous.

Alcohol increases the risk of oral cancer, and if tobacco and alcohol are consumed together the risk is even greater. Over-exposure to sunlight can also increase the risk of cancer of the lips.

Many recent reports have linked oral cancer to the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer and affects the skin that lines the moist areas of the body.

HPV can be spread through oral sex, and research now suggests that it could soon rival smoking and drinking as one of the main causes of mouth cancer. Practicing safe sex and limiting the number of partners you have may help reduce your chances of contracting HPV.

Reducing the risk

The three most effective ways to prevent oral cancer (or prevent it from reoccurring after successful treatment) are:

  • Quit smoking
  • Stick to the recommended weekly limits for alcohol consumption (21 units for men, 14 units for women – read more about alcohol units)
  • Eat a 'Mediterranean-style diet,' high in fresh vegetables (particularly tomatoes), citrus fruits, olive oil and fish - read more about healthy eating

You should also have regular dental check-ups because the dentist can often spot the early stages of mouth cancer during a routine examination.

Click to top