Mouth Cancer – Dr Stephen Murray explains the problems
Mouth Cancer: How serious is the problem?
AS we approach Ireland’s National Mouth Cancer Awareness Day, we’re blogging with a series of articles about mouth cancer. In this one, I’m going to outline what the disease involves and some of the problems that can arise from mouth cancer.
What is mouth cancer?
Cancer is a general term for diseases where some of the body’s tissue loses the regulation of its growth and it grows uncontrollably. It can invade the local area and damage tissues nearby or be spread through blood vessels to other parts of the body. If it involves some area of the body that is vital to life, then it becomes life-threatening.
Mouth cancer is a general term given to any form of cancer (there are a few different ones) that presents in the mouth.
The mouth might be the original location of the disease (which would be called “primary site”), or it may appear in the mouth after having spread from a primary site somewhere else in the body (in this case it would be called a “secondary site”). As I explained in an earlier article, the mouth is a fairly common site for cancer to occur although it’s not a disease with a high public profile.
There are a few things that make it very different from other cancers.
- The mouth is part of the face, and the face is the most obvious source of our identity. Therefore any disease that threatens the appearance of the face has an extra significance. When I was studying dentistry we had a lecture on anaesthetics and the anaesthetist mentioned a well-known actor that had lung cancer, and was treated with an operation to remove one of his lungs “he’d only one lung, and went up and collected his Oscar no bother”. In other words, there are areas of the body where you can experience significant disease, and then significant surgical alteration and it will be practically invisible, but the mouth is not one of them. Advanced mouth cancer is disfiguring to the face, and even if the cancer doesn’t advance far, if advanced surgical treatment is required that can also have a radical effect on the appearance. And both the disease and the treatment can have a significant effect on the function of the mouth – that could involve eating and speaking.
- Some cancers are often painless as they develop and you don’t know they are there until they have advanced to a stage where they create signs or symptoms involving the function of other parts of the body. Mouth cancer can often be like this, sometimes a patient doesn’t notice it’s there until they notice a swelling in their mouth, or a break in the lining of the mouth, or they can’t move their tongue normally.
- But unlike many other cancers that happen deep within the body, mouth cancer happens in an area which can easily be examined without using complicated equipment – often a good light and a small mirror are all you need. And when you do need complicated procedures to examine an area of mouth tissue further, it’s still much easier to carry out – you can often take a small sample for examination with a similar amount of effort as getting a dental filling or a wisdom tooth removed.
So to summarise: mouth cancer is a very serious disease when it progresses, and people are often not aware of it until it has progressed quite far, but it’s a relatively easy one to examine for clinically - and that’s what makes it a disease we should look out for.
In the next article, I’ll talk about reducing the risk of mouth cancer and mouth cancer screening.