When there is an outbreak of cancer cells that invade the gums, it is known as gum cancer. Gum cancer is one type of oral cancer, but thankfully, it is also a rare form of cancer in general. If a dentist and patient are able to catch it early, treatment can lead to curing the cancer. Another positive thing about gum cancer is that it grows much more slowly than most other types of cancers.
However, if gum cancer is left untreated or is not found until it has reached advanced stages, the gum cancer can spread into deeper tissues and eventually the neck. If the cancer is beyond this stage, it can spread through the lymph nodes and into the blood where it then can travel to other parts of the body. If this happens, chances are greater that another form of cancerous tumor will grow in the new area. This is a process known as metastasis. Unfortunately, gum cancer is known to be recurring, even after treatment.
Gum Cancer Symptoms
If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should seek professional dental or medical attention. There are two types of gum cancer symptoms that you should be aware of: the ones you feel and the ones you see.
Gum cancer symptoms can include:
- Sores and lesions on the gums that last longer than 14 days
- Bleeding gums, could be unexpected or after brushing
- Difficulty chewing and swallowing
- Problems with speech
- Painful or painless lump on gums
- Swollen lymph glands
- Sensations such as numbness or pain within the gums
One important thing to remember is that pain is not always associated with gum cancer. In fact, this form of cancer is usually painless during the earliest of stages. Other signs and symptoms of gum cancer other than pain are better indications that you should seek dental or medical help.
What Causes Gum Cancer?
There are various medical conditions and lifestyle choices that can contribute to and cause gum cancer, including:
- Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipe tobacco
- Smokeless tobacco users
- Too much sun, especially as a child
- Poor oral hygiene
- Not receiving regular dental check-ups
- Misdiagnosis of other medical condition
It is no secret that smokers and tobacco users suffer from more types of oral cancers than non-users. In fact, 75% of oral cancer patients are tobacco users. Gum cancer can also be a family condition. However, it can also be due to other activities such as sunbathing too often, not demonstrating proper oral health habits and not seeing your dentist at least twice a year.
Diagnosing Gum Cancer
To diagnose you properly, your dentist will first give you an oral examination and ask you questions related to your symptoms, eating habits, medical and dental histories and other activities, e.g. smoking, drinking, and drug usage. Additional diagnostic tests may include x-rays, CT scans (computer tomography), and PET scans (positron emission tomography).
After diagnosing you with gum cancer, your dentist will stage it. Staging involves using characteristics of the cancer including its size, severity, and its effects on the lymph nodes and any other parts of the body. For gum cancer, stages range from Stage I to Stage IV, with Stage I being the mildest.
Unfortunately, the gum cancer diagnosis can sometimes be delayed or missed due to the fact that in the early stages, there are hardly any symptoms to report. Plus, due to poor education, when symptoms do appear they may not be severe enough to cause a concern. These symptoms can come and go such as with oral herpes, canker sores, gum burn, self-inflicted bite, cold sore and dental abscess. However, these conditions can cause or lead to gum cancer eventually. This is why it is so important for you to pay attention to the changes occurring in your mouth, gums and teeth, and report them to your dentist.
Gum Cancer Treatment
If you do not have gum cancer, you can prevent it by practicing good oral hygiene, maintaining healthy habits and seeing your dentist every six months or as often as he or she recommends. There are four methods of treatment for gum cancer that is caught early enough. One method is surgery. It is the most effective way to treat gum cancer. During the surgery, some or all of your teeth, plus some or all of the cancer growth (tumor) is removed. Other forms of treatment include radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of either radiation and surgery or chemotherapy and surgery. Rehabilitation may be needed for those who need to improve their speech, chewing, swallowing and jaw/mouth movements.
All cancer survival rates are measured in five-year intervals. According to the American Cancer Society staging scale, the five-year survival rates go as followed:
- Stage I – 81%
- Stage II – 62%
- Stage III – 45%
- Stage IV – 40%
Preventing Gum Cancer
Gum cancer prevention is simple. Take care of your teeth and see your dentist twice a year or as often as he or she recommends. Regular check-ups can detect the earliest stages of all sorts or oral cancers, including gum cancer. Taking care of damaged teeth immediately can also prevent oral problems such as gum cancer. Brushing, flossing and rinsing should always be done at a minimum of twice a day. Creating new habits such as chewing gum or having toothpicks or floss picks nearby for after a meal is also a great way to prevent gum cancer. As long as the product does not contain sugars, you should be fine. Apples are known to be a great snack because they act as a natural tooth cleaner while you eat them. Minimizing your tobacco and alcohol intake can also prevent gum and other oral cancers from forming.
Talking to Your Dentist
Here are some suggestive questions to ask your dentist about gum cancer:
- Which stage is my gum cancer in? Has it spread to other parts of my body?
- What are some of the treatment options available to me?
- How long does treatment take? Will my normal activities be affected during treatment?
- Are there any over-the-counter products that can help me?
- Are there any home remedies that may benefit me?
Resources for Gum Cancer
If you feel you have gum cancer, please consider contacting one of the following organizations for more information.
National Cancer Institute
NCI Office of Communications and Education
Public Inquiries Office
6116 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892
American Cancer Society