The oral cavity begins at the lips and extends back to the beginning of the tonsils. This region also includes the bones of the lower jaw (mandible), the bones of the upper jaw (hard palate), the floor of the mouth, and the front two-thirds of the tongue, as well as the muscles underneath that provide movement to the tongue.
The oral cavity has numerous functions, including holding food and saliva in the mouth and pushing food back toward the esophagus for digestion. The specialized lining of your mouth, as well as the many saliva glands, provide lubrication, which aids in speech, swallowing, and the digestion of food.
The most common cancer of the oral cavity is squamous cell carcinoma, which arises from the lining of the oral cavity. Other types of cancers of the oral cavity include cancers of the salivary glands (such as mucoepidermoid carcinoma and adenoid cystic carcinoma), sarcomas (tumors arising from bone, cartilage, fat, fibrous tissue, or muscle), and melanomas.
Risk Factors for Oral Cancer
HPV (human papillomavirus) is the primary risk factor of oral cancers, particularly those located in the tonsils and the base of tongue. These patients often do not have a history of smoking or drinking and are typically between 35 and 55. Men are more at risk for oral cancers by 4 to 1 over females. Tobacco and alcohol use are also risk factors for head and neck cancer, including the oral cavity. Use of tobacco and alcohol in combination significantly increases this risk. Although the most common use of tobacco in the United States is cigarette smoking, smokeless tobacco, or chew, is also associated with oral cancers.
Symptoms of Oral Cancer
Oral cavity cancer typically features one or more non-healing wounds on the tongue, in the floor of mouth, or along the inner cheek. These lesions can be painful and may bleed, but in some cases they do not cause significant discomfort.
As the lesions increase in size, you may experience:
- New or increased pain
- Pain upon swallowing
- Ear pain
- A change in speech
- Uncoordinated swallowing
- A lump in the neck
The most important thing to note is that sores in the mouth, whether they are related to trauma or a variation of canker sores, should fully heal within a few weeks. If this does not occur, it’s time to see a doctor. Left untreated, cancers of the oral cavity can be devastating. And early detection is critical to successful outcomes.
The team at Head and Neck Institute is widely recognized for treating oral cancers. Mount Sinai was one of the early adopters of TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS) and conducts extensive research on robotic surgery outcomes.