Cancer is a difficult disease to comprehend, particularly in regard to what causes it. However, certain risk factors play key roles in the development of cancer cells in the body.
With cancers of the oral cavity (lips, cheeks, teeth, gums, tongue, hard palate, and floor of the mouth) and oropharyngeal cancers, which are cancers of the throat just behind the mouth, scientists believe that the primary risk factors for damaging the DNA of cells in this region of the body have to do with tobacco or heavy alcohol use. In addition, the Mayo Clinic advises that excessive sun exposure to the lips, sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, and a weakened immune system may contribute to oral cancers.
The American Cancer Society explains that when tobacco, alcohol or UV exposure damage the cells that line the mouth or throat, that damage causes the cells to grow more rapidly to repair the damage. Cancerous cells may result during this rapid division. Some substances in tobacco can even damage DNA directly. The ACS also says the HPV virus causes cells to make two proteins known as E6 and E7. When these are made, they turn off some genes that normally help keep cell growth in check.
Warning signs of the presence of oral cancer vary from person to person. However, there are some generalized symptoms that could warrant a trip to a doctor and/or dentist for an examination. These include:
• red or white patches on the gums, tonsils or lining of the mouth
• swelling in the neck
• lumps in the cheeks
• feeling like something is caught in the throat
• trouble chewing, swallowing or moving the tongue
• weight loss
• constant halitosis
Doctors advise limiting risk factors to help potentially halt the development of oral cancers.
• Stop using tobacco products, or do not start in the first place. Tobacco includes anything smoked or chewed.
• Avoid excessive sun exposure. Protect the skin on the lips by staying in the shade and using a sunscreen lip product.
• Drink in moderation, if at all. Chronic alcohol use is implicated in oral cancers, as the alcohol can irritate cells in the mouth, making them more vulnerable.
• See the dentist regularly for routine oral examinations. Dentists can pinpoint abnormalities in the mouth that may be precancerous or cancerous.
More information about oral cancer can be found at www.cancer.org.