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What is Oral Cancer ?

Cancer originates in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body. Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old they die and are replaced by the new cells.

Sometimes this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumour.

Tumours can be benign or malignant:

Benign tumours

  • Are not cancerous.
  • Are rarely life-threatening.
  • Generally once removed, they do not grow back.
  • Cells from these do not invade the tissues around them nor spread to other parts of the body.

Malignant tumours

  • Are cancerous.
  • They may be life-threatening.
  • Often can be removed, but sometimes they grow back.
  • Cells from malignant tumours can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs.
  • The cells spread by breaking away from the original cancer (primary tumour) and entering the bloodstream or lymphatic system.
  • They invade other organs, forming new tumours and damaging these organs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.
The process of oral cancer

Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is part of a group of cancers called head and neck cancers. Oral cancer can develop in any part of the oral cavity or oropharynx. Most oral cancers begin in the tongue and in the floor of the mouth. Almost all oral cancers begin in the flat cells (squamous cells) that cover the surfaces of the mouth, tongue and lips. These cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas.

Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the neck, the lungs, and other parts of the body. When this happens, the new tumour has the same kind of abnormal cells as the primary tumour. For example, if oral cancer spreads to the lungs, the cancer cells in the lungs are actually oral cancer cells. The disease is metastatic oral cancer, not lung cancer. Doctors sometimes call the new tumour "distant" or metastatic disease. The death rate associated with oral cancer is high because it is diagnosed in late stages. Prognosis at this stage of discovery is significantly worse than when it is caught in a localized intra oral area. Oral cancer is particularly dangerous because in its early stages it may not be noticed by the patient, so it prospers without producing pain or symptoms and it has a high risk of producing second, primary tumours. This means that patient who survives a first encounter with the disease, has up to a 20 times higher risk of developing a second cancer. This heightened risk factor can last for 5 to 10 years after the first occurrence.


Oral Cavity

Oral cancer affects the oral cavity. The oral cavity is the first part of the digestive tract. It is a complex structure with nutritional, respiratory and communicative functions. The oral cavity is continuous with the pharyngeal cavity, a more complex and somewhat irregular space.

Relative 5-year survival rate by stage.