Is Oral Cancer Part of Head and Neck Cancer?

Reviewed on 2/25/2022
head and neck cancer
Oral cancers are a type of head and neck cancer that can occur in the mouth or throat.

In most cases, yes.

Oral cancer is distinguished by cells that begin to alter, grow uncontrollably and frequently clump together to form a mass called a tumor.

Oral cancers are a type of head and neck cancer that can occur in any of the following places:

  • In the mouth
    • Lips
    • Gums
    • Cheek lining
    • The floor of the mouth (below the tongue)
    • The front part of the tongue and the roof of the mouth
  • In the throat
    • Back of the tongue
    • The back part of the roof of the mouth (called soft palate)
    • The back of the throat
    • Over the tonsils

Oral cavity cancer is cancer that begins in the mouth.

  • Oropharyngeal carcinoma is cancer that begins in the mouth or the part of the throat from the palate to the vocal cords.
  • Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are malignancies that begin in the head and neck area.

15 common symptoms of oral cancer

Oral cancer can cause a variety of symptoms; however, you should be aware that the presence of any of these symptoms does not always indicate the presence of cancer.

  1. Red (erythroplakia) and white (leukoplakia) patches on the lips or in the mouth
  2. Non-healing sore on the lip or in the mouth
  3. Swellings or lumps on the lips, gums, cheek, back of the throat, etc.
  4. Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the lip or mouth
  5. Numbness or loss of sensation in any area of the mouth, neck, or face
  6. Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  7. Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or speaking
  8. Loosening of teeth
  9. Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well
  10. Ear pain
  11. Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  12. Unexplained weight loss
  13. Swelling of the jaw
  14. Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat
  15. Change in voice

Oral cancer can make it difficult to eat, speak, or even breathe. As a result, even minor changes in your oral cavity should be reported to the doctor for further assessment.

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What are the causes of oral cancer?

Most oral malignancies arise in the mouth, tongue, gums, and lips. However, not all tumors or growths in the mouth are cancerous. Some are benign (not cancerous), whereas others are precancerous (potentially cancerous but not invasive like the cancerous cells).

3 most common causes of oral cancer

  1. Tobacco use
    • Most incidences of oral cancer are linked to one or more forms of tobacco usage (cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, chewing tobacco, dipping snuff, cigars).
    • The longer you use these, the greater the risk.
  2. Alcohol consumption
    • To some extent, alcohol is known to irritate the lining of the mouth or the gums.
    • The danger multiplies if you use both alcohol and smoke.
  3. Human papillomaviruses (HPV 16 and HPV 18)
    • This virus, which causes cervical cancer, has been related to oropharyngeal cancer.
    • Sexual contact spreads these infections from person to person.
    • HPV infection may be associated with cancers near the base of the tongue, the back of the throat, tonsils, or soft palate.

What are the risk factors of oral cancer?

9 risk factors for developing oral cancer

  1. About two-thirds of people diagnosed with oral cancer are men
  2. Oral cancers are found most often in people older than 45 years
  3. Prolonged sun exposure, which can lead to lip cancer
  4. Long-term irritation caused by ill-fitting dentures
  5. Poor nutrition, especially a diet low in fruits and vegetables
  6. Immunosuppressive drugs
  7. Previous head and neck cancer
  8. Radiation exposure
  9. Lichen planus, a disease that affects the cells that line the mouth can lead to oral cancer

Each year, between 30,000 and 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer, and approximately 10,000 people die due to it. However, most cases of oral cancer are curable, and the odds of successfully treating oral cancer are increased with early detection and therapy.

What are the different stages of oral cancer?

Doctors need to know the stage of oral cancer to offer the best treatment.

The stage of cancer is determined by the size and extent of your tumor, the number of lymph nodes involved, and whether the cancer has spread. This information will be obtained by the oncologist using several tests.

  1. Stage 0
    • Cancer is only present in the layer of cells lining the oral cavity or oropharynx at this stage.
    • Cancer may be quite small, and it has not spread. Cancer at this stage is referred to as carcinoma in situ.
    • Surgery, radiation, or a combination of the two may be used in treatment.
  2. Stage I
    • Cancer may be only about three-fourths of an inch.
    • Cancer has not migrated to lymph nodes or anywhere else in the body.
    • Cancer at this stage has a high likelihood of survival.
    • Surgery, radiation, or a combination of the two may be used in treatment.
  3. Stage II
    • Cancer is approximately half to one inch.
    • Cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or other organs.
    • At this point, the chances of survival are strong.
    • Surgery, radiation, or a combination of the two may be used in treatment.
  4. Stage III
    • The tumor is larger than two inches and has not spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
    • Alternatively, cancer can be of any size and has progressed to neighboring lymph nodes but not to other parts of the body.
    • Treatment options include surgery, radiation, or both. Chemotherapy may be recommended to eradicate any cancerous cells that have spread, and other choices include targeted treatments that target specific cancer cells in oral cancer.
  5. Stage IV
    • The tumor can be any size, but it has progressed to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
    • The tumor will most likely be removed surgically.
    • Radiation or chemotherapy, as well as tailored treatments, or a combination of these are used.

Recurrent oral cancer

  • Recurrent oral cancer is cancer that has returned after being treated.
  • When cancer recurs, the staging procedure is restarted.
  • To establish the degree of the malignancy, the same tests are run as the first time.

What is the diagnosis and survival rate of oral cancer?

During routine dental checkups (which should be done least on time a year), most dentists look for indicators of oral cancer. If your dentist suspects you have oral cancer, you may be referred to an oncologist.

A biopsy is frequently performed if they detect cancer. If cancer has been diagnosed, therapy should begin as soon as feasible.

  • Because oral tumors are generally detected late in their progression, they have a high mortality rate of roughly 50 percent five years after diagnosis.
  • When oral malignancies are small and caught early, the survival rate rises to more than 85 percent, emphasizing the need of getting assistance as soon as possible.

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References
Image Source: iStock Images

American Cancer Society. If You Have Oral or Oropharyngeal Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/if-you-have-head-or-neck-cancer.html#

Columbia University. Head and Neck/Oral Cancers. https://www.cancer.columbia.edu/cancer-types-care/types/head-and-neck-oral-cancers/about-head-and-neck-oral-cancers

The Oral Cancer Foundation. Oral Cancer Facts. https://oralcancerfoundation.org/facts/

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Oral Cancer. https://www.mdanderson.org/cancer-types/oral-cancer.html

Chi AC, Day TA, Neville BW. Oral cavity and oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma--an update. CA Cancer J Clin. 2015 Sep-Oct;65(5):401-21. https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3322/caac.21293

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