According to the Canadian Cancer Society, oral cancer starts in the cells of the mouth. A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. The most common place oral cancer spreads to is the lymph nodes in the neck. Oral cancer may also be called oral cavity cancer or mouth cancer.
Cells in the mouth sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to non-cancerous (benign) tumours such as warts and fibromas.
Changes to cells of the mouth can also cause precancerous conditions. This means that the abnormal cells are not yet cancer, but there is a chance that they may become cancer if they aren’t treated. The most common precancerous conditions of the mouth are leukoplakia (white patches) and erythroplakia (red patches).
Known Risk Factors
Tobacco - Most oral cancers are linked to tobacco use. All forms of tobacco increase the risk for this cancer, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, bidis and smokeless tobacco (including chewing tobacco and snuff). The longer you use tobacco and the more you use, the greater your risk. The risk for oral cancer greatly increases when smoking is combined with using smokeless tobacco, drinking alcohol or both. Continuing to smoke after treatment for oral cancer increases the risk of developing a second oral cancer.
Alcohol - Alcohol is one of the main risk factors for oral cancer. The more you drink, the greater your risk. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases the risk of developing oral cancer more than using either one alone.
Betel quid and areca nut - Betel quid and areca nut contain cancer-causing substances. People who chew betel quid or areca nut have a higher risk of developing oral cancer, especially in the inner lining of the cheeks and lips.
Human papillomavirus - HPV is a group of more than 100 different types of related viruses. Many types of HPV are spread through sexual contact, including oral sex. HPV is likely the cause of oral cancer that is not linked with tobacco or alcohol use.
Signs and Symptoms
The most common symptom of oral cancer is an ulcer or sore in the mouth or on the lip that doesn’t heal. Another common symptom of oral cancer is pain in the mouth that doesn’t go away.
Other signs and symptoms of oral cancer include:
- white patches (leukoplakia), red patches (erythroplakia) or mixed red and white patches (erythroleukoplakia) on the lips or in the mouth
- a lump or growth on the lips, in the mouth or on the tongue
- thickening of the inner cheek lining (the buccal mucosa)
- earache that doesn’t go away
- dentures that no longer fit
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck (called cervical lymph nodes)
- numbness or loss of sensation over the tongue or lips
You can read more about oral cancer here on the Canadian Cancer Society website.
If you have any questions or concerns about oral cancer, please contact our practice.