Learn more about mouth cancer, also called oral cancer, from oncologist Katharine Price, M.D.
Hello, I'm Dr. Katharine Price, an oncologist at Mayo Clinic. In this video, we'll cover the basics of oral cancer: What is it? Who gets it? The symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. Whether you're looking for answers for yourself or someone you love, we're here to give you the best information available. Oral cancer, also called mouth cancer, forms in the oral cavity, which includes all parts of your mouth that you can see if you open wide and look in the mirror. Your lips, gums, tongue, cheeks, roof or floor of the mouth. Oral cancer forms when cells on the lips or in the mouth mutate. Most often they begin in the flat, thin cells that line your lips and the inside of your mouth. These are called squamous cells. Small changes to the DNA of the squamous cells make the cells grow abnormally. These mutated cells accumulate, forming a tumor that grows in the mouth and often spread to lymph nodes in the neck. Oral cancer is curable if detected at an early stage. And like other cancers, a large amount of effort has been dedicated to determining causes and improving treatments.
The average age of those diagnosed with oral cancer is 63. Just over 20% of cases occur in patients younger than 55. However, it can affect anyone. There are several known risk factors that could increase your risk of developing oral cancer. If you use any kind of tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and others, you're at a greater risk. Heavy alcohol use also increases the risk. Those with HPV, human papillomavirus, have a higher chance of developing oral cancer as well. Other risk factors include a diet that lacks fruit and vegetables, chronic irritation or inflammation in the mouth, and a weakened immune system.
Oral cancer can present itself in many different ways, which could include: a lip or mouth sore that doesn't heal, a white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth, loose teeth, a growth or lump inside your mouth, mouth pain, ear pain, and difficulty or pain while swallowing, opening your mouth or chewing. If you're experiencing any of these issues and they persist for more than two weeks, see a doctor. They'll be able to rule out more common causes first, like an infection.
To determine if you have oral cancer, your doctor or dentist will usually perform a physical exam to inspect any areas of irritation such as sores or white patches. If they suspect something is abnormal, they may conduct a biopsy where they take a small sample of the area for testing. If oral cancer is diagnosed, your medical team will then determine how far along the cancer is, or the stage of the cancer. The stage of the cancer ranges from 0 to 4 and helps your doctor counsel you on the likelihood of successful treatment. In order to determine the stage, they may perform an endoscopy, where doctors use a small camera to inspect your throat, or they may order imaging tests, like CT scans, PET scans, and MRIs, to gather more information.
What your treatment plan looks like will depend on your cancer's location and stage, as well as your health and personal preferences. You may have just one type of treatment or you may need a combination of cancer treatments. Surgery is the main treatment for oral cancer. Surgery generally means removing the tumor and possibly lymph nodes in the neck. If the tumor is large, reconstruction may be required. If the tumor is small and there's no evidence of spread to lymph nodes, surgery alone may be enough treatment. If the oral cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the neck or is large and invading different areas of the mouth, more treatment is required after surgery. This could include radiation, which uses high-power beams of energy to target and destroy the mutated cancerous cells. Sometimes chemotherapy is combined with the radiation. Chemotherapy is a powerful cocktail of chemicals that kills the cancer. Immunotherapy, a newer treatment which helps your immune system attack the cancer, is also sometimes used.
Learning you have oral cancer can be difficult. It can leave you feeling helpless. But remember, information is power when it comes to your health. This disease is survivable - now more than ever. Be informed. Take control of your health. And partner with your medical team to find a treatment that's right for you. If you'd like to learn even more about mouth cancer, watch our other related videos or visit mayoclinic.org. We wish you well.