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Cancer of the Mouth and Throat
(Oral Cancer)

What Is Oral Cancer (Throat and Mouth Cancer)?

The oral cavity (mouth) and the upper part of the throat (pharynx) have roles in many important functions, including breathing, talking, chewing, and swallowing. The mouth and upper throat are sometimes referred to as the oropharynx or oral cavity. The important structures of the mouth and upper throat include the following:

  • Lips
  • Inside lining of the cheeks (mucosa)
  • Teeth
  • Gums (gingiva)
  • Tongue
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Back of the throat, including the tonsils (oropharynx)
  • Roof of the mouth (the bony front part [hard palate] and the softer rear part [soft palate])
  • Area behind the wisdom teeth
  • Salivary glands

Many different cell types make up these different structures. Cancer occurs when normal cells undergo a transformation whereby they grow and multiply without normal controls. Malignant tumors (cancers) of the oral cavity can encroach on and invade neighboring tissues. They can also spread to remote sites in the body through the bloodstream or to lymph nodes via the lymph vessels. The process of invading and spreading to other organs is called metastasis.

Picture of oral cancer (cancer of the mouth)
Picture of oral cancer (mouth cancer)

Tumors in the mouth (oral cancer) and throat (oropharyngeal cancer) include both benign (not cancer) and malignant types.

  • Benign tumors, although they may grow and penetrate below the surface layer of tissue, do not spread by metastasis to other parts of the body. Benign tumors of the oropharynx are not discussed in this article.
  • Each year, almost 50,000 people in the U.S. will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer. Around 9,700 people will die of these cancers.

Premalignant conditions are cell changes that are not cancer but which may become cancer if not treated.

  • Dysplasia is another name for these precancerous cell changes It means abnormal growth.
  • Dysplasia can be detected only by taking a biopsy of the lesion.
  • Examining the dysplastic cells under a microscope indicates how severe the changes are and how likely the lesion is to become cancerous.
  • The dysplastic changes are usually described as mild, moderately severe, or severe.

The two most common kinds of premalignant lesions in the oropharynx are leukoplakia and erythroplakia.

  • Leukoplakia is a white or whitish area on the tongue or inside of the mouth. It can often be easily scraped off without bleeding and develops in response to chronic (long-term) irritation. Only about 5% of leukoplakias are cancerous at diagnosis or will become cancerous within 10 years if not treated.
  • Erythroplakia is a raised, red area. If scraped, it may bleed. Erythroplakia is generally more severe than leukoplakia and has a higher chance of becoming cancerous over time.
  • Mixed white and red areas (erythroleukoplakia) can also occur and represent premalignant lesions of the oral cavity.
  • These are often detected by a dentist at a routine dental examination.

Several types of malignant cancers occur in the mouth and throat.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma is by far the most common type, accounting for more than 90% of all cancers. These cancers start in the squamous cells, which form the surface of much of the lining of the mouth and pharynx. They can invade deeper layers below the squamous layer.
  • Other less common cancers of the mouth and throat include tumors of the minor salivary glands called adenocarcinomas and lymphoma.
  • Cancers of the mouth and throat do not always metastasize, but those that do usually spread first to the lymph nodes of the neck. From there, they may spread to more distant parts of the body.
  • Cancers of the mouth and throat occur in twice as many men as women.
  • These cancers can develop at any age but occur most frequently in people aged 45 years and older.
  • Incidence rates of mouth and throat cancers vary widely from country to country. These variations are due to differences in risk factor exposures.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/17/2017

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Dysphagia has many causes. First, there may be physical (anatomical) obstruction to the passage of food. Second, there may be abnormalities in the function (functional abnormalities) of the nerves of the brain, throat, and esophagus whose normal function is necessary to coordinate swallowing. Finally, there also may be abnormalities of the muscles of the throat and esophagus themselves.

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Cancers of the Oral Mucosa »

Approximately 90% of oral cancers are squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which is seen in older men, typically on the lip or lateral part of the tongue.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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