Mouth cancer is a malignant tumor growing inside the mouth. It usually grows on the tongue or floor of the mouth but may grow on the gums, lips, jaw, and roof of the mouth. Most often, this cancer occurs in older men who used tobacco and drank alcohol in excess.
When found early, mouth cancer is highly curable with surgery or radiation therapy. Treatment is much less effective if smoking and drinking alcohol continue.
Chances of getting mouth cancer are greater with use of any kind of tobacco—cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, and chewing tobacco. Using alcohol with tobacco greatly increases chances of getting it. Other causes include anything that irritates the inside of the mouth, poor oral care, poorly fitting dentures, and sun exposure (lip cancer).
The first sign is usually a small sore in the mouth or on the lip. It may be a small red or white bump or patch or an open sore (or ulcer) that doesn’t heal.
Symptoms include tongue pain, feeling that something is caught in the throat, trouble swallowing, swollen jaw, and voice changes.
The health care provider will examine your mouth. A small long-handled mirror to see the back of the tongue may be used. A small piece of tissue will be removed (biopsy) and sent to the laboratory for study. The health care provider may also do a chest x-ray.
If the biopsy shows mouth cancer, other tests may include computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to see the size of the cancer and how far it spread, which is called staging.
Treatment can involve surgery, radiotherapy, a combination of surgery and radiotherapy, and anticancer drugs (chemotherapy).
Surgery will depend on where the cancer is, its size, and how far it has spread. For very large tumors, the surgeon may remove part of the jaw bone. Mouth surgery may cause swelling that makes it hard to cough, spit, eat, and even breathe. Sometimes a temporary opening is made through the skin in the low part of the neck into the windpipe. This opening, a tracheostomy, makes it easier to breathe and cough and clear fluid from the lungs.
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