How to recognize cancer in the mouth?

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. 13% of all deaths in 2008 was attributed to cancer. Oral cancer takes a considerable amount of lives every year. In  the United States alone, around 37,000 people are diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer every year. This year, it would have taken the lives of at least 8,000 people. That means, there is someone dying of oral cancer every hour. (Source: WHO)

The problem only grows bigger across the world, with at least 640,000 new cases found every year. In India, the number of oral cancer cases are on the rise. According to a study done in February 2011, India has 86% of the world’s oral cancer cases. Most of the credit goes to our ‘chewing tobacco’ habits.

Oral cancer is also, generally, discovered late in its development, which is quite ironic because you think you would discover the cancer early. Late discoveries are to blame for the high death rates due to oral cancer. (Source: Link)

With the rising number of people being diagnosed with cancers, the fear associated with it also increases. So how do you recognize cancerous tissues?

There may be changes in the mucosa or underlying structures of the mouth, which are often referred to as precancerous. When these tissues are examined under a microscope, they often show alterations in structure that have a higher risk of becoming cancerous if left untreated. There will be whitish or bright reddish changes of the mucosa of the mouth (known as leukoplakia & erythroplakia). Severe burning sensations of the mouth when eating food, blisters and limited mouth opening can also be indications of pre-malignant changes of the body tissues (commonly known as oral submucus fibrosis).

The treatment modality: use of any known irritant like tobacco, or chewing of betel nut, or even an ill-fitting denture, should be discontinued. Changes in diet should be made to include a lot of fruits and veggies, since they naturally possess antioxidants, which help in keeping the free radicals produced in your body under control. Your dentist may prescribe a few medications for local application and some vitamin supplements and then recall you for a visit after 2 weeks to check for healing of the lesion.

Sudden swelling (gingival hyperplasia) or sudden bleeding of the gums has been seen in certain conditions like leukemia. Although these symptoms are not conclusive for cancer, they definitely signal that something is not right in the health of your gums and requires treatment. If you notice spontaneous bleeding (without any stimulation or cause) from anywhere in your mouth or any discoloration indicating bleeding underneath without a cause, make sure you schedule an appointment with your dentist for a check up.

Painless ulcers, that do not heal for long, and teeth that have suddenly began to shake or fall off, should be viewed with caution. Similarly, any swelling in the mouth, whether in the bone or gums that gets bigger as the days go by, should be seen by a dentist immediately. Since most of these won’t be painful initially, we tend to ignore them, until they cause us discomfort. But for all cancerous lesions, the earlier they are detected, the better will be the results of treatment. Another sign to watch out for are changes in your voice that do not go away or heal within a few weeks. If you feel you are losing your voice or it is getting hoarser, without any associated infections or flu, make sure you go to your physician.

Lifestyle changes that help in keeping you healthy are exercising daily, along with good nutritional choices and sufficient sleep to regenerate your body and keep infections away. No one can guarantee a person to be cancer free forever, but knowing what symptoms to look out for, helps in getting faster treatment.

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