First, your doctor or dentist will perform a physical exam. This includes closely examining the roof and floor of your mouth, the back of your throat, tongue, and cheeks, and the lymph nodes in your neck. If your doctor cannot determine why you’re having your symptoms, you may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.
If your doctor finds any tumors, growths, or suspicious lesions, they’ll perform a brush biopsy or a tissue biopsy. A brush biopsy is a painless test that collects cells from the tumor by brushing them onto a slide. A tissue biopsy involves removing a piece of the tissue so it can be examined under a microscope for cancerous cells.
In addition, your doctor may perform one or more of the following tests:
- X_RAYS to see if cancer cells have spread to the jaw, chest, or lungs
- a CT SCAN to reveal any tumors in your mouth, throat, neck, lungs, or elsewhere in your body
- a PET SCAN to determine if the cancer has traveled to lymph nodes or other organs
- a MRI SCAN to show a more accurate image of the head and neck, and determine the extent or stage of the cancer
- an ENDOSCOPY to examine the nasal passages, sinuses, inner throat, windpipe, and trachea
There are four stages of oral cancer.
- Stage 1: The tumor is 2 centimeters (cm) or smaller, and the cancer hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage 2: The tumor is between 2-4 cm, and cancer cells haven’t spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage 3: The tumor is either larger than 4 cm and hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes, or is any size and has spread to one lymph node, but not to other parts of the body.
- Stage 4: Tumors are any size and the cancer cells have spread to nearby tissues, the lymph nodes, or other parts of the body.
According to the national cancer institute , the five-year survival rates for oral cavity and pharynx cancers are as follows:
- 83 percent, for localized cancer (that hasn’t spread)
- 64 percent, for cancer that’s spread to nearby lymph nodes
- 38 percent, for cancer that’s spread to other parts of the body
Overall, 60% of all people with oral cancer will survive for five years or more. The earlier the stage at diagnosis, the higher the chance of survival after treatment. In fact, the five-year overall survival rate in those with stage 1 and 2 oral cancers is typically 70 to 90 %This makes timely diagnosis and treatment all the more important.
Treatment for oral cancer will vary depending on the type, location, and stage of the cancer at diagnosis.
Treatment for early stages usually involves surgery to remove the tumor and cancerous lymph nodes. In addition, other tissue around the mouth and neck may be taken out.
Radiation therapy is another option. This involves a doctor aiming radiation beams at the tumor once or twice a day, five days a week, for two to eight weeks. Treatment for advanced stages will usually involve a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
is a treatment with drugs that kill cancer cells. The medicine is given to you either orally or through an intravenous (IV) line. Most people get chemotherapy on an outpatient basis, although some require hospitalization.
Targeted therapy is another form of treatment. It can be effective in both early and advanced stages of cancer. Targeted therapy drugs will bind to specific proteins on cancer cells and interfere with their growth.
Nutrition is also an important part of your oral cancer treatment. Many treatments make it difficult or painful to eat and swallow, and poor appetite and weight loss are common. Make sure you discuss your diet with your doctor.
Getting the advice of a nutritionist can help you plan a food menu that will be gentle on your mouth and throat, and will provide your body with the calories, vitamins, and minerals it needs to heal.
Keeping your mouth healthy
Finally, keeping your mouth healthy during cancer treatments is a crucial part of treatment. Make sure to keep your mouth moist and your teeth and gums clean.
The recovery from each type of treatment will vary. Postsurgery symptoms can include pain and swelling, but removing small tumors usually has no associated long-term problems.
The removal of larger tumors could possibly affect your ability to chew, swallow, or talk as well as you did before the surgery. You might also need reconstructive surgery to rebuild the bones and tissues in your face removed during surgery.
Radiation therapy can have a negative effect on the body. Some of the side effects of radiation include:
- a sore throat or mouth
- dry mouth and loss of salivary gland function
- tooth decay
- nausea and vomiting
- sore or bleeding gums
- skin and mouth infections
- jaw stiffness and pain
- problems wearing dentures
- a change in your ability to taste and smell
- changes in your skin, including dryness and burning
- weight loss
- thyroid changes
Chemotherapy drugs can be toxic to rapidly growing noncancerous cells. This can causes side effects such as:
- hair loss
- painful mouth and gums
- bleeding in the mouth
- severe anemia
- poor appetite
- mouth and lip sores
- numbness in the hands and feet
Recovering from targeted therapies is usually minimal. The side effects of this treatment can include:
- an allergic reaction
- skin rashes
Although these treatments do have side effects, they’re often necessary in beating the cancer. Your doctor will discuss the side effects and help you weigh the pros and cons of your treatment options