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Cancers of the mouth and throat


What is cancer of the mouth?

Cancers of the mouth are quite rare in the U.K. It is a disease in which malignant cells are found in the tissues of the lips, mouth or tongue.

What is cancer of the throat?

Throat diagram

The throat or pharynx is a hollow tube that starts behind the nose and goes down to the neck to become part of the oesophagus (tube that goes to the stomach). Air, food and liquids pass through the pharynx on the way to the windpipe (trachea) or oesophagus.

The pharynx is divided into 3 distinct sections: the nasopharynx (including the adenoids), oropharynx (including the tonsils) and the hypopharynx. A growing tumour in the throat may cause problems with your hearing, smell, taste, speech or swallowing.

What causes cancer of the mouth and throat?

In some cases the exact cause of cancer is not known. However, the primary cause of mouth and throat cancer is smoking. People who drink excess alcohol are also at risk and when mixed with tobacco use, their chance of developing cancer is much greater.

Another factor of cancers of the mouth, especially in the lips is prolonged exposure to sunlight or sun-beds, this is also the major cause of skin cancer. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, try to wear a wide brimmed hat and apply a high factor sun-cream to your face and lips.

Regular inhalation of coal dust, asbestos and diesel fumes may also increase the risk of developing throat cancer.

What are the symptoms of mouth cancer?

Mouth cancers can appear in different forms, depending on the area affected. Symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Painless ulcer or sores in the mouth that do not heal.
  • White, red or dark patches in the mouth that will not go away.
  • Ear-ache.
  • Unusual bleeding or numbness in the mouth.
  • A lump in your lip, mouth or gums.
  • Enlarged lymph glands in the neck.
  • If the cancer affects the tongue it may cause some slurring of speech.
  • If the cancer affects the mouth it may cause you to loose teeth or cause pain during swallowing or chewing.

Dentists when examining your teeth often spot cancer of the lips and mouth. Make sure you have regular check-ups at your dentist.

What are the symptoms of cancer of the throat?

The earliest symptoms of throat cancer are likely to resemble the same symptoms that you may experience with a chest cold. Symptoms caused by a tumour in the throat may include:

  • Persistent sore throat.
  • Cough and hoarseness.
  • Pain or difficulty in swallowing.
  • Swollen lymph glands in the neck.
  • Traces of blood in saliva.
  • Ear-ache.
  • Nosebleeds.

There are a number of non-serious conditions that may also cause a number of these symptoms, if you are worried about any symptoms you are experiencing, visit your doctor for help and advice.

Am I at risk of mouth and throat cancer?

Cancers of the mouth and throat are more common in men and people over the age of 45.

The Epstein-Barr virus is also known to be a risk factor in the development of cancer of the throat. The Epstein-Barr virus is the virus that causes glandular fever. However, infection with the virus alone is not sufficient to cause cancer, since this cancer is quite rare and glandular fever is quite common.

Is there anything I can do to prevent getting cancer of the mouth and throat?

The majority of mouth and throat cancers can be avoided by stopping smoking and drinking excess alcohol. Maintaining a healthy balanced diet is also an important factor in the prevention of most diseases.

How is mouth and throat cancer diagnosed?

The doctor will usually begin by examining the mouth and throat using a mirror and lights. The doctor may then feel the mouth and throat with a gloved finger, for any lumps or swellings. You may then be asked to have a blood test and a X-ray to check your general health. The doctor can only confirm a diagnosis of mouth and throat cancer by taking a sample of the cells ( biopsy) from the suspected cancer. These cells will then be analysed under a microscope.

What treatment is available for cancer of the mouth and throat?

As with all cancers the earlier the cancer is found the better your chances are of effective treatment. The type of treatment you receive will depend on the type and size of the cancer and your general health. Most cancers of the mouth and throat are treated with surgery to remove the cancer. The part of your mouth or throat you have removed will depend on the location of the tumour. An operation to remove the tumour may be all the treatment you need. Some people may also need radiotherapy, either on its own or in addition to surgery.

Chemotherapy may be used either in addition to surgery or radiotherapy. Your doctor will discuss all options with you.