What is oral cancer?
Oral cancer is cancer which develops in the mouth or throat tissues. It can occur on the:
- Roof of the mouth
- Inner lining of the cheeks
- Floor of the mouth (under the tongue)
Oral cavity and oropharynx are essential to the body’s healthy functioning. They help us to breathe, to eat and to talk. In the oral cavity, salivary glands start breaking down food as we chew, which is an essential part of digestion. Cancer can manifest in any part of the oral cavity. Since each section of the oral cavity is different, oral cancer includes a wide range of forms of cancer that are treated different ways. If detected and treated early it can be cured. A health care provider or dentist often finds oral cancer at its early stages as it is easy to examine the mouth and lips. Oral cancer prevalence in India has ben increased in recent times making it one of the most common cancers.
Rare tumors can also develop in the glands that produce saliva, the tonsils at the back of the mouth and the part of the throat that links mouth to windpipe (pharynx). Furthermore, oral cancer may also develop in the oropharynx, which is the portion of the throat just behind the mouth. If cancer occurs here, it is called oropharyngeal cancer or cancer of the throat, which may include the back of the tongue, the back of the mouth’s roof, the tonsils and the upper throat walls.
What causes oral cancer?
Oral cancers develop when cells produce changes (mutations) in their DNA on the lips or in the mouth or oral cavity. DNA of a cell contains instructions which tell a cell what to do. Changes in the mutations tell the cells to continue to grow and divide when healthy cells die. Tumor can be formed by the accumulation of abnormal oral cancer cells. Over time they can spread inside the oral cavity or to other areas of the head and neck or other parts of the body.
Most commonly, oral cancers begin in the flat, thin cells (squamous cells) that line the lips and inside the mouth. Most of the oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. It is not clear what causes the mutations which lead to oral cancer in squamous cells. But doctors have identified factors that could increase oral cancer risk in spite of oral cancer causes being unclear.