Types of Oral Cancers

Oral cancer medical concept as a mouth with malignant disease cells with 3D illustration elements.

Oral cancer is a serious health concern that affects thousands of people worldwide every year. It refers to cancer that develops in any part of the mouth, including the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and pharynx (throat). Early detection and treatment are crucial for improving the prognosis of oral cancer, which underscores the importance of regular dental appointments. In this blog, we will explore the different types of oral cancers and highlight why regular dental check-ups are vital for early intervention.

Understanding the Basics of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer refers to cancerous growths located in the oral cavity, including the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and pharynx (throat). It primarily arises from the squamous cells that line these regions, leading to squamous cell carcinomas, the most common type of oral cancer.

Early signs of oral cancer might be subtle and mistaken for other, less serious conditions. Symptoms include:

  • Sores, swellings, lumps or thick patches anywhere in or around the mouth or throat
  • Red or white patches in the mouth
  • Unexplained bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • Persistent sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Ear pain
  • Changes in the way teeth or dentures fit together

Types of Oral Cancers

Squamous Cell Carcinoma: 

The most common type of oral cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, accounts for about 90% of all oral cancers. It starts in the squamous cells that line the mouth and throat. This cancer can affect the lips, tongue, cheeks, and the floor of the mouth.

Verrucous Carcinoma: 

This is a less common and less aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma. Verrucous carcinoma grows slowly and is less likely to spread to other parts of the body. It often affects the gums, cheeks, and sometimes the lips.

Mucoepidermoid Carcinoma

This type of cancer originates in the salivary glands. Although there are different types of cancers that can affect the salivary glands, this is the most common. The mouth houses several small salivary glands that can become the site of mucoepidermoid carcinoma, although this is rarer than squamous cell carcinoma.

Lymphoma: 

Oral lymphoma starts in the lymphoid tissues in the tonsils or the base of the tongue. Lymphomas in the oral cavity are relatively rare but require prompt treatment.

Melanoma: 

The most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma, can also occur in the mouth. Oral melanoma is rare but extremely aggressive and can develop in the mucosal tissues of the mouth.

Where Oral Cancer is Commonly Found

When oral cancer affects different structures within the mouth and throat, its appearance can vary significantly, depending on the location and extent of the disease. Understanding these visual and physical changes is crucial for early detection and prompt treatment.

Tongue

Oral cancer affecting the tongue often appears as a white or red patch, an ulcer, or a lump on the surface of the tongue. These lesions may be located on the sides, underside, or even the back part of the tongue. As the cancer progresses, the affected area might become more raised or thicker, and the lesions can become painful, especially when eating or moving the tongue.

Lip

On the lips, especially the lower lip which is more commonly affected, oral cancer may initially manifest as a sore that does not heal, a lump, or a rough patch. These areas may bleed easily when disturbed. Over time, the affected area might become crusted or ulcerated, and there can be noticeable changes in color, with lesions appearing whiter or redder than the surrounding lip tissue.

Gum

Gum cancer typically presents as a growth or sore on the gums that does not go away. It might look like a thickened area, a lump, or a dark red patch. As the cancer grows, it can cause the gums to swell and bleed easily. In advanced cases, it may lead to loosening of the teeth or changes in how dentures fit due to the destruction of the underlying bone and soft tissue.

Throat

Throat cancer, which includes cancer of the pharynx and larynx, might not be visible in its early stages without specialized equipment. Symptoms such as a persistent sore throat or hoarseness can signal its presence. In more visible areas, like the oropharynx, it might appear as a lump, a white or red patch, or an ulcer that does not heal. Advanced throat cancer can lead to visible masses in the neck, changes in voice quality, and difficulty swallowing.

Jaw

Cancer affecting the jawbone can manifest as swelling or a lump on the jawline. The skin over the jaw might appear thicker and more rigid. There might also be numbness or pain along the jaw, and in severe cases, visible deformity if the cancer causes destruction of the bone. This can lead to difficulty opening the mouth or a noticeable change in how the upper and lower teeth align.

General Appearance

Across these different structures, oral cancer’s appearance can share common features, such as:

  • Non-healing ulcers or sores.
  • White or red patches that do not resolve.
  • Lumps, bumps, or swellings that grow over time.
  • Areas of induration (hardening) or fixation to underlying tissues, suggesting deeper invasion.

Importance of Regular Dental Appointments

The significance of regular dental visits extends far beyond maintaining optimal oral hygiene; they are a critical component in the early detection of oral cancer. Dentists play a pivotal role in identifying early signs of oral cancer, often before patients notice any symptoms themselves. This early detection can be life-saving, significantly improving the prognosis and treatment outcomes for individuals affected by this disease.

Early Detection

During a routine dental check-up, dentists conduct a thorough examination of the entire oral cavity, including the lips, tongue, gums, the roof and floor of the mouth, and the back of the throat. This comprehensive evaluation allows them to spot any abnormal signs that could indicate the presence of oral cancer or precancerous conditions.

Visual and Physical Examination

Dentists use both visual inspection and physical palpation to detect abnormalities. They look for sores, discolored areas (red or white patches), lumps, and other irregularities in the mouth. By feeling the tissues of the mouth, neck, and throat, dentists can detect unusual masses or swollen lymph nodes, which could be indicative of cancer.

Specialized Tools and Techniques

Some dental practices employ advanced technologies and techniques to aid in the detection of oral cancer. These can include special lights or dyes that help visualize abnormal cells or tissues not visible to the naked eye. While these tools can provide additional insight, the standard visual and physical examination remains a cornerstone of oral cancer screening.

The Role of Dental Visits in Early Intervention

Regular dental appointments are crucial for early intervention. Detecting oral cancer in its initial stages significantly increases the chances of successful treatment. Early-stage cancers are typically smaller, localized, and more treatable, often requiring less extensive treatment than those diagnosed at a later stage.

Educating Patients

Beyond screening, dentists also play a vital role in educating patients about the risk factors and symptoms of oral cancer. This education can empower individuals to perform self-examinations and seek medical attention for suspicious changes in their oral health, further enhancing early detection efforts.

Conclusion

Oral cancer is a significant health issue that requires attention and early intervention. Understanding the different types of oral cancer and recognizing the importance of regular dental check-ups can play a crucial role in early detection and treatment. By maintaining regular dental appointments, individuals can ensure that any signs of oral cancer are identified and addressed promptly, significantly improving their treatment outcomes. Let this be a reminder of the vital role dental health plays in our overall well-being and the importance of keeping those dental appointments.

Dr. Sisko

Dr. Gerald Sisko graduated from Ohio State University College of Dentistry in 1987. He is an active member of the American Dental Association, the Ohio Dental Association, and the Akron Dental Society where he is currently holding a council position. He has had the honor and distinction of being awarded “TOP DENTIST” in Akron and Cleveland as well as Northeast Ohio for the last several consecutive years.

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Types of Oral Cancers

Oral cancer is a serious health concern that affects thousands of people worldwide every year. It refers to cancer that develops in any part of the mouth, including the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and pharynx (throat). Early detection and treatment are crucial for improving the prognosis of oral cancer, which underscores the importance of regular dental appointments. In this blog, we will explore the different types of oral cancers and highlight why regular dental check-ups are vital for early intervention.

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