Oral cancer: Causes, Symptoms, Risk, Stages, Treatments, etc.

If you are thinking that “There is absolutely nothing that can protect me from oral cancer”, you need to keep that feeling away as there are different ways to prevent it. Starting from getting rid of habits of tobacco chewing, alcohol, and smoking; it has been found out that tobacco and nicotine use consists of one of the major risks for oral cancer. Drinking excessive alcohol without smoking can also increase the risk of oral cancer. South Asia residents are more likely to develop this kind of cancer as chewing betel quid is a common practice among the south Asian people. Chewing betel quid includes chewing a leaf of the betel plant wrapped around an areca nut.

What is Oral Cancer and its Causes?

Many times people think that oral cancer is very easy to spot but as per reports have found out the mouth and throat cancer can appear in places that are difficult to spot; it can be in the tonsils, lymph nodes, or the base of the tongue.

Oral or mouth cancer refers to cancer formation in any part of the mouth which may include the lips, tongue, gums, roof of the mouth, the inner lining of the cheeks, or the floor of the mouth (the area under the tongue). Cancer that occurs at the mouth area is termed as oral cavity cancer. Oral cancer along with other types of cancers of the head and neck are categorized together under head and neck cancers. All such cancers often undergo similar kind of treatments.

Cancer is a term that refers to an uncontrollable growth of cells in any part of the body that mutates and invades the surrounding tissue causing serious damages in the late stages. Oral cancer like most other forms of cancer can be treated if detected at an early stage but if not diagnosed early it can prove to be life-threatening.

Who is most likely to get oral cancer?

It has been stated by the American Cancer Society that men carry more chances of developing oral cancer than women. In 2019 more than 50,000 people in the U.S were estimated to receive a diagnosis of oral cancer.

  • Men above the age of 50 years face greater risk and certain condition can also increase the chances of developing oral cancer-
  • Chewing tobacco, users of snuff and dip carry chances of developing oral cancer in the cheeks, lining of the lips and gums
  • Existence of cancer patients in the family (family history)
  • Exposure to chemicals like sulfuric acid, nickel and asbestos
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Weak immune system
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Cigar or pipe smokers and addiction to smoking
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight at a young age

Around 25% of oral cancer occurs in people who may drink occasionally or not smoke at all. Therefore it is important to undergo timely checkups so that if there is any presence of oral cancer, it gets detected and cured.

Symptoms of Oral cancer

According to the World Cancer Research Fund International throat and mouth, cancer ranks 6th among the most common cancer in the world; the signs of oral cancer may include soreness in the mouth that does not heal easily with time, sore throat, patches or lump formation in the mouth are some of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer. List of some more symptoms of oral cancer are-

  • Swell in the jaw area
  • Ear pain
  • Numbness in the mouth
  • Hoarseness in the voice
  • Difficulty in moving the jaw and tongue
  • Bleeding and pain in the mouth
  • Difficulty in chewing and swallowing food
  • Presence of lump in the throat, lips and mouth
  • Red or white patch on the tongue, gums or the lining of the mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Headache
  • Sudden weight loss

If symptoms like such do not wear off within a few weeks then you must immediately reach out to the doctor or dentist.

Symptoms of oral cancer

Causes of Oral cancer

It is a myth that oral cancer is rare and it is also not true that young people don’t have to worry about oral cancer. Oral cancer can affect younger adults through the possible link between oral cancer and sexually transmitted forms of human papillomavirus(HPV-linked to the tongue, back part of the throat and tonsil cancers). It has still not been found out by scientist whether a person can get oral HPV from any kind of casual contact or not. The symptoms of HVP may not appear at all and in most cases, it has been seen that the immune system clears the virus from the body within 2 years; when undetected the virus can lead to cancer of the head or neck.

Oral cancer most commonly begins due to mutation in the squamous cells-flat and thin cells that line up the lips and inside area of the mouth. It is still not evident what causes a mutation in such cells that eventually develops to oral cancer. Due to mutation there occurs abnormal growth of cells that pile up to form a tumour. If left untreated the tumour can spread to other parts of the body and damage parts of the neck, head or any other part of the body.

Different types of Oral cancer

Oral cancer mostly grows in the thin flat cells that form a lining in the voice box and throat area. According to the location of cancer, the doctor identifies them-

  • Hypopharynx- narrow area behind the voice box
  • Nasopharynx- upper part of the throat behind the nose
  • Oropharynx- grows mostly in the tonsils, the soft palate and, back of the tongue

What are the stages of Oral cancer?

In total there are 4 stages of cancer-

  • Stage 1- the tumour develops to about 2 centimetres in size and at this stage, cancer has not spread to any of the lymph nodes
  • Stage 2- tumour extends to about 2 to 4 cm with no presence of spread to other parts
  • Stage 3- the cancer cells may have or may not have spread to the lymph nodes/any parts of the body. The size of the tumour at stage 3 is larger than 4 centimetres.
  • Stage 4- this stage is crucial as cancer spreads to other parts of the body, nearby tissues or the lymph nodes

The survival rates of oral cancer have been declared as 5 years by the National Cancer Institute. With early detection there lie higher chances of getting cured and treated properly.

Treatment  of Oral cancer

The treatment of oral cancer involves the contribution of different professionals for treatment like otolaryngology surgeons, radiation oncologist, endocrinologist, nutritionist, dentist, medical oncologist, and speech therapists. All cases of oral cancer don’t involve the same kind of treatments. The doctor will at first diagnose the location, note down the kind of cancer that’s developing and the stage it is in. The patient’s overall health and personal preferences are also taken into account.

After proper analysis, the doctor may recommend surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or hyperthermia accordingly to the need of the patient.

  • Surgery- it is recommended when oral cancer needs to be removed as the tumour formed might have spread to the surrounding tissues. The surgery involves removing lymph nodes, the jawbone and part of the tongue i.e. places where the cancer is present.
  • Radiation therapy- uses radiation particles to damage the DNA of the tumour cells and destroys their ability to reproduce. Brachytherapy and external beam therapy are two kinds of therapy that target affected the area. In external beam radiation, a machine is used to target oral cancer with radiation beams and brachytherapy uses radioactive needles to deliver radiation to the tumour and at times the doctor may also recommend this kind of radiation for people with early-stage of tongue cancer. Radiation therapy may sometimes also show some side effects which include fatigue, skin reactions such as burn, stiffness in the jaw, bleeding gums, soreness in the mouth, and tooth decay.
  • Chemotherapy- in chemotherapy drugs are used that kills cancer-causing cells. The medicine can be prescribed orally or via an intravenous line (IV). Chemotherapy can require to get hospitalized or can be given at an outpatient basis.
  • Targeted therapy- this kind of therapy is effective for both advance and early stages of cancer. Targeted therapy drugs combine with specific proteins on cancer-causing cells and interfere with their growth.
  • Nutrition- adequate advice from the nutritionist can help you plan an effective diet plan that may help you to get rid of poor appetite and sudden weight loss issues. The recommended food will provide your body with the necessary minerals, vitamins, and calories.

Last but not least keep your mouth healthy while undergoing oral cancer treatments as it is necessary. Try and make sure to keep your mouth moist and your gums and teeth clean. Doing so will prevent unwanted germs from getting in contact with the affected area, else pain and other difficulties might scale up.

Recovery after Oral cancer

While getting treatments to cure oral cancer the patient may face many types of side effects in the recovery process starting from hair fall, vomiting nausea, lack of appetite, weakness or numbness in the hands and feet. To beat off all such side effects doctors may recommend reconstruction surgery and some rehabilitation to cope up better with the side effects.

Precaution of Oral cancer

There is no such rule or follow method that will prevent mouth cancer but one can reduce the chances of getting oral cancer by bringing some changes in the lifestyle such as-

  • Stop usage of tobacco whether in smoke form or chew
  • Try and avoid excessive exposure to the sunlight, mainly the lips
  • Avoid alcohol or moderate the usage
  • Visit your dentist at least once a month and ask him/her to inspect areas of the mouth you might feel is showing certain kind of abnormalities.


Que1. Can oral cancer kill you?

Ans- Yes, if left untreated oral cancer can kill a person

Que2. How fast does oral cancer spread?

Ans- It entirely depends on the kind and size of cancer that’s developing.

Que3. What do the early stages of mouth cancer look like?

Ans- In the early stage the patient might not feel any kind of pain and there occur appearances of flat patches that might look like an ulcer.

Que4. What is the common age for mouth cancer?

Ans- The common age for mouth cancer is 50 to 70 years old

Que5. Where is oral cancer most common?

Ans- The most common site for oral cancer is known to be an oral cavity

Que6. Is oral cancer genetic?

Ans- Yes, at times it can be genetic where there inherited genetic mutations carry a high risk of oral cancer

Que7. Can oral cancer be cured completely?

Ans- Yes, when detected at an early stage it can be treated and cured completely

Que8. Is stage 3 mouth cancer curable?

Ans- Almost 70 out of 100 survives their cancer at stage 3 for a year or more.

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