Oral and Jaw Cancer Symptoms - Savina Dental clinics Malta and Gozo

Oral cancer is a common type of cancer that causes the uncontrollable growth of cells that invade and cause damage to the surrounding tissue in the mouth. If not diagnosed and treated early, oral and jaw cancer can be life-threatening. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, Oral cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States. Most oral cancers are related to alcohol and tobacco use or infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Difference Between Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers?

The main difference between oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer is that oral cavity cancer starts in the mouth whereas oropharyngeal begins in the oropharynx.

Oral Cancer Symptoms

Jaw or Teeth pain

A tumour in the jawbone can cause pain that makes it hard for you to chew and eat. The pain becomes persistent with time and may worsen as cancer grows. It is important to note that one of the most common causes of pain on chewing is a developing abscess due to a non-vital tooth nerve, rather than oral cancer.

Lumps on the jaw

Bumps on the roof of your mouth or along the gum line may be an indication of cancer developing on the jawbone. If you notice a new lump in your mouth that does not resolve after two weeks, it is crucial that you see your dentist for checkup and cancer screening.

Swelling of the jaw

According to the Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, swelling on the jaw may be a sign of osteosarcoma –a bone tumour that affects the jaw. This swelling can be visible on the side of your face or the inside of your mouth. It may also cause swelling on the roof of your mouth or beneath your teeth.

Tooth mobility

Tooth mobility can be the result of several factors, most commonly periodontal disease or a dento-alveolar or periodontal abscess. Certain jaw tumours can also cause tooth mobility. If your teeth suddenly become loose or shift positions, make sure to see your dentist in the shortest time possible. A tumour may be pushing your teeth out of place.

Persistent mouth sore

A persistently sore mouth could be a sign of oral cancer.

Pain

Generalised persistent pain in the mouth and throat area can be a sign of oral cancer. A stinging pain at the back of the throat could also be a sign of cancer. Such pain, even if you cannot pinpoint the cause, should not be ignored.

Red or white patches in your mouth

This is another common sign of oral cancer that appears in the early stages of the disease. If you notice these white patches, it is important that you get immediate medical help. Otherwise, the condition may worsen and become cancerous. It is important to note that many white patches are not cancerous, but you should still take the precaution of having any such lesions checked out.

Difficulty chewing or swallowing

Difficulty chewing or swallowing should be checked by a doctor immediately. Although other health conditions may cause this symptom, it is crucial that you get it evaluated by your doctor or ENT specialist.

Numbness

Sometimes, a tumour can get overly big that it compresses a nerve in the mouth, causing numbness in an isolated area. However, the numbness does not just come out of nowhere. In the months leading to the numbness, you may have suffered some pain and discomfort in that area.

Voice changes

While chain smokers gain a certain raspiness to their voice after years of smoking, this is not a sign of cancer. However, if your voice changes after two weeks or less, it could be a sign of oral cancer.

A lump in the neck

A lump in the throat for an individual who is over 40 years of age is usually considered as cancer until proven otherwise. This is typically a sign that your cancer spreading, causing a lump to develop on your neck before spreading to other areas.

Weight loss

The pain caused by oral and jaw cancer makes chewing and swallowing difficult. This can make you eat less as you try to avoid the pain, and lose weight in the process.

Persistent bad breath

As the oral cancer tumours grow, it can outgrow its blood supply, forming an ulcer, which is prone to bacterial infection. These bacteria tend to leave a foul smell that does not go away even after you brush your teeth.

Risk factors Of Oral & Jaw Cancer

Smoking

People who smoke cigars, cigarette or pipe, have six times the chance of developing oral cancer compared to non-smokers.

Smokeless tobacco users

People who use sniff, dip or chewing tobacco products are 50 times more likely to develop cancer of the gums, the lining of the lips and cheek.

Excessive alcohol consumption

People who drink excessive amounts of alcohol are six times more likely to develop oral cancer than non-drinkers.

Family history

Squamous cell carcinoma, popularly known as SCC, is a common type of cancer of the mouth. According to a study conducted in Italy and Switzerland on family history and the risk of oral cancer, people with 2 or more first-degree relatives with oral cancer have a higher risk of developing the same condition.

Excessive sun exposure

The sun emits rays that can burn your lips and cause the development of cancer. Exposing your child to too much sun increases their risk of contracting oral cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

There are certain strains of HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, that are etiologic risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer (source).

Diagnosis

Since oral cancer spreads fast, early detection is crucial for complete treatment. The first thing your dentist does is an oral cancer screening exam. They will feel your head, neck, face and oral cavity for any lumps or irregular tissue change. They will then examine the roof of your mouth, tongue, cheeks, back of the throat, and the lymph nodes found in your neck. They will also check for discoloured tissues or sores and also check for any of the symptoms outlined above.

In case they find any suspicious looking area, they will conduct either a tissue or brush biopsy to determine the makeup of that area. A brush biopsy is an easy and pain-free test. The doctor uses a brush to collect cells from tumours by brushing them on a slide. A tissue biopsy, on the other hand, requires the doctor to remove part of the tissue so that it can be tested for cancerous cells.

Jaw Cancer Signs to look out for

Mouth Cancer Stages Determination

Your dentist will refer you to the appropriate specialist for further treatment. Your doctor will use a variety of diagnostic tests to determine the stage and progression of cancer. This way, they can make an educated and personalised treatment decision and plan.

How to assess mouth cancer stages;

Using a small camera to inspect your throat

This procedure employs a small, flexible camera that is equipped with some light. The camera is passed through your nose to examine your throat area and voice box. This examination helps the doctor to check whether it has spread beyond your mouth.

Imaging tests

Your dentist can take a full-mouth panoramic radiograph or a cone-beam CT scan to check for cancers of the oral cavity and related structures. There are a variety of imaging tests that help determine whether cancer has spread beyond the mouth. Some of these imaging tests include X-rays, CT Scans, PET scans, MRI among others.

Treatment Of Oral Cancer

Surgery

Surgery for oral cancer aims to remove a tumour, cancerous lymph nodes, and any other affected tissue while decreasing damage to other parts of the mouth. This treatment is recommended for those whose oral cancer is in the early stages.

Radiation Therapy

This treatment uses doses of radiation to kill cancerous cells. It is usually administered after surgery to prevent cancer from recurring. However, in throat cancer, it is often the first treatment given in conjunction with chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy

This treatment is usually combined with radiotherapy when the cancer is widespread or where it is thought that there is a significant risk of cancer recurring. Chemotherapy uses powerful cancer-killing medicines that damage the DNA of cancerous cells to interrupt their ability to reproduce.

Targeted Drug Therapy

These drugs can be used to treat cancer in both the initial and advanced stages. These drugs bind to particular proteins on the cancer cells to inhibit growth.

Vital Statistics for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers

According to recent estimates on oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers in the US 2018:

  • Approximately 51,540 people will develop oral or oropharyngeal cancer
  • 10,030 of these people will die from these cancers

These types of cancers typically occur on the tongue, tonsils and oropharynx, the floor of the mouth, retromolar areas, gums and other areas within the mouth. Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are seen more often in people aged above 62 years. The rate of these cancers varies from country to country but are more common in France and Hungary than in the US (source).

Oral Cancer Prevention

Quit smoking

If you use tobacco, whether chewed or smoked, you need to stop to prevent yourself from getting oral cancer. Tobacco exposes your mouth’s cells to dangerous cancer-causing chemicals.

Avoid drinking excessive levels of alcohol

Excessive alcohol consumption irritates the cells in your mouth, making them vulnerable to mouth cancers. If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to one drink a day (if you are a woman) and two glasses if you are a man.

Eat a well-balanced diet

Eat a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables. The vitamins and antioxidants found in these foods help reduce your risk of mouth cancer.

Limit exposure to the sun

Excessive exposure increases the risk of cancer on the lips.

See your dentist regularly for a checkup

Regular dental checkups and oral cancer screening are crucial for preventing oral cancer. They help the dentists catch issues early, allowing for treatment before it gets out of hand. The dentist should examine your mouth for abnormal growths for signs and symptoms of oral cancer or precancerous changes.

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Savina Clinic – Dental & Implantology Centres are friendly, state-of-the-art practices in Malta and Gozo dedicated to comprehensive quality dental care. Savina Dental is an innovative dental practice in Malta and prides itself on the high-quality customer service, low waiting room times, attention to detail and the advanced dental technology at their disposal.

Joseph Xuereb
Joseph Xuereb
Principal Dental Surgeon & Owner of Savina Dental Clinics, Dr Joseph Xuereb BChD (Hons), MFGDP(UK), MGDS RCS(Eng), FFGDP RCS(UK), FICD is a general dental practitioner with a special interest in Implant and Restorative Dentistry. Dr Joseph & the teams' full biographical information can be found here.