Dr. Michael Handler

Oral Cancer – Where and Why It Develops

By Dr. Michael Handler

The idea of cancer is frightening under any circumstances, but our mouths are so central to every facet of our lives that the idea of oral cancer carries additional weight. With the focus the modern world has on “The Big C” it’s no surprise people wonder about every oral lesion or canker sore they get and whether it’s cancerous.

Here’s what you need to know about oral cancer, how it starts, where it occurs and whether you’re at risk for it at all.

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer develops when mouth cells and their surrounding tissues begin to change. Under normal circumstances, the cells grow and divide to form new ones as you need them. When they grow old or get damaged, they die off and are replaced by new cells.

When a patient acquires oral cancer, however, this process changes and becomes erratic. Old and damaged cells survive instead of dying, while new cells appear and divide without stopping growing into nearby tissue and destroying it. As the number of cells increases, they build up into tumours or lesions that can spread into surrounding areas of the body.  

Areas Where Oral Cancer Occurs

Mouth cancer is one of several kinds of neck and head cancers. It can develop almost anywhere inside your mouth, including your lips, inner cheeks, gums, palate, tonsils, or salivary glands. Areas where oral cancer typically appears include the surface of the tongue and the mucous membrane lining of the mouth. Both these areas contain flat, thin cells that are particularly susceptible to becoming cancerous, which is how this form of cancer got the name “squamous cell carcinoma” of the mouth. You can get other kinds of oral cancer too, however, such as cancer of the salivary glands or melanoma, but these are seen more rarely.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Few people notice signs of oral cancer, especially in the early stages. Most types of mouth cancer are painless at first, and the tissue changes are minimal. Symptoms can include red or white patches on the tongue or tissues. Ulcers that won’t heal, swelling or enlargement that has no obvious cause, sudden looseness of teeth for no reason, unusual bleeding or hoarseness that doesn’t go away could all be signs that something is amiss. That’s why it’s so important to ask your dentist to perform a professional cancer screening every few years. If you notice a growth, lump or a thickening of the tissue anywhere in your mouth, or develop any sort of unidentifiable mouth, jaw or tongue pain that continues for a while, it’s worth getting medical attention right away.

Risk Factors

Around three-quarters of oral cancers can be connected to behaviour such as smoking and drinking alcohol. Poor dental hygiene, irritation caused by ill-fitting dentures, inadequate nutrition and infections caused by bacteria or viruses also increase your chances of getting oral cancer. In some cultures, chewing betel, paan or Areca can put you at a higher risk for cancer, and in countries like India where many people use these products up to 40% of all cancer is oral. When we compare this with 4% in a country like the U.K. it shows just how much habits can impact your health.

Oral cancer screening can be scheduled with your dentist.  To schedule an appointment with the leading dentist in Scarborough, please call 416-267-4661 or click here to book online.


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