There has been a renewed interest in oral cancer since actor Michael Douglas recently announced on the David Letterman Show that he was diagnosed with Stage 4 oral cancer at the base of his tongue. He will undergo eight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation.
Not long ago, film critic Roger Ebert appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and described how his life had been drastically changed since undergoing throat cancer treatment during which his salivary glands, thyroid and vocal chords were removed. He demonstrated his new computer activated voice.
What is oral cancer?
- Cancer cells found in the throat, mouth, tongue, tonsils or vocal chords are referred to as oral cancer.
- About 25,000 new cases are reported each year. More than ½ of those diagnosed are men.
What causes oral cancer?
- Smoking a half pack of cigarettes for at least 15 years.
- Drinking several alcoholic drinks a day for 10 years.
- Put smoking and drinking together and the risk is higher.
- The sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV) has also been a factor in oral cancer diagnosed in those who were not smokers or drinkers.
What are the symptoms of oral cancer?
- A sore in the mouth that does not heal.
- High pitched breathing sounds.
- Cough or coughing up blood.
- Pain in the throat or mouth area that doesn’t go away.
- A red or white patch on the tonsils, gums or tongue.
- A lump or thickening in the tongue, cheek or neck.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- A sore throat that does not go away in 2 weeks even with antibiotics.
- Weight loss.
What is the treatment for oral cancer?
- Treatment is aimed at completely removing the cancer before it spreads to other parts of the body.
- When the tumor is small, either surgery or radiation therapy alone can be effective.
- A larger tumor or one that has spread may require both surgery and radiation to preserve the voice box.
What is the prognosis for oral cancer?
- Stage 4 oral cancer has an 80% cure rate.
- Some patients will not need disfiguring surgery. Surgery is reserved for cancer that returns after radiation and therapy. Michael Douglas is getting 8 weeks of radiation and chemotherapy for the walnut size tumor at the base of his tongue.
What is recovery after treatment?
- The effects of the treatment can be overwhelming.
- There will be difficulty swallowing and often a tube feeling bypassing the throat is necessary.
- There may be difficulty chewing, swallowing and talking for a period of time.
- Saliva production is altered. Swallowing therapy may be necessary.
- There may be a change in appearance, facial features and weight loss.
- The patient may be on painkillers and unable to work.
- The voice may be gone permanently and a new way of speaking must be learned.
The Oral Cancer Foundation website has resources and information. Trained therapists are available to help during the recovery process, as well as support groups.
But as one patient remarked, the anxiety that the cancer will return, is ongoing. The mildest sore throat can be terrifying.
David Letterman Show
St. Pete Times…Irene Maher.