Oral Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Oral cancer is any cancer that affects the oral cavity, including the lips, tongue, gums, roof of the mouth, under the tongue, the back of the throat, or the insides of the cheeks. Over 53,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oral cancer yearly, with twice as many men as women diagnosed.

How is Oral Cancer Diagnosed?

Most individuals are diagnosed by a dentist or oral surgeon. Typically, the first signs are noticed during a routine dental exam. However, we encourage everyone to do a monthly self-exam for oral cancer and notify our office if they have symptoms, as early intervention is crucial to successful treatment. Possible signs of oral cancer include:

  • Reddish patches (erythroplakia) or whitish patches (leukoplakia) in the mouth
  • A sore that fails to heal and bleeds easily
  • A lump or thickening on the skin lining the inside of the mouth
  • A chronic sore throat or hoarseness and/or difficulty in chewing or swallowing

During your annual dental exam, we carefully check the cheeks, gums, tongue, and neck. We perform a visual inspection and carefully feel the area around the neck, face, and oral cavity for any lumps or sensitivity. If any signs of oral cancer are detected, we will biopsy the site to determine whether it is oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Biopsies

We carefully remove a small section of the tissue to biopsy any suspicious lesions and send it to a pathologist who checks for cancer cells. If there are cancer cells, the pathologist sends us a detailed report on the type and extent of the oral cancer. This information guides us in determining the appropriate treatment option.

Exfoliative Biopsy

This is the least invasive type of biopsy. We painlessly scrape some cells from the area to send to the pathologist. If the lesion is small or does not look highly suspicious, we may choose this option.

Incisional Biopsy

If a lesion is more significant or looks highly suspicious, an incisional biopsy cuts out a tissue sample for testing. We use local anesthesia to numb the area.

Excisional Biopsy

Sometimes, we may perform an excisional biopsy, cutting out the entire lesion and some surrounding, healthy tissue. Stitches are required to close the area, and the site takes 7-10 days to heal. An excisional biopsy minimizes the risk of missing any cancer cells being missed and may be the only treatment needed.

Oral Cancer Treatment

Oral cancer diagnosed early can usually be treated with surgery to remove the lesion and radiation therapy. If your cancer is not diagnosed until it is advanced, you may need a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. Targeted drug therapy may also be used, which attacks only the cancer cells and not surrounding tissue. Other issues impacting what type of treatment is used include your overall health, the size of the lesion or lesions, and their location.

Your treatment for oral cancer may require collaboration between your doctor, our oral surgeons, and an oncologist.

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