Tumors can develop everywhere in the mouth and on the mouth – except on the teeth. There are two types of tumors – benign and malignant. The underlying causes of both types are unknown.
Benign tumor is usually a bump, which grows slowly and does not affect the surrounding areas. Malignant tumor is a form of cancer. Its cells do not stay in one place; they spread to the surrounding areas, and then continue spreading. Malignant tumors of the tongue are usually spread in a period of several months, while the tumors in the other parts of the mouth spread more slowly, over a few years.
One of the forms of slowly growing malignant tumors, which occurs on the upper lip or near it, is known as basalioma; this is a type of skin cancer we have described in detail elsewhere (see basalioma article).
Benign tumors of the mouth usually occur individually. At first the tumor appears as a small, bright bump that is slowly growing over many years. If it becomes very large (i.e. if its diameter becomes more than 10 mm), the bump can cause problems with the setting of the denture, and cause some distortion of the face.
Malignant tumor also occurs as a single bright bump, but then passes into the ulcer with the hard, elevated edges, and a sensitive center that bleeds easily. Ulcer grows and affects the surrounding area in the mouth. With the increasing of the ulcer, cancerous cells spread to the tongue, and the muscles of the tongue become hardand stiff, causing problems during eating, swallowing and speaking. Malignant tumors are usually not painful until they get to advanced stage.
Malignant tumors of the mouth are very rare and affect only one person out of 25,000 per year. They are very rare in people under the age of 40, and most common in people over the age of 60. Tumors of the mouth are more common in men. Benign tumors are probably as rare as malignant.
Benign tumors are usually not dangerous. In malignant tumors there is a risk of spreading (metastasis), so the chances of recovering are smaller if the tumor is later discovered and treated.
What to do?
If you notice or feel a bump, an ulcer or inexplicable color change in your mouth (that lasts longer than three weeks), if your denture does not fit well or if your tongue has become stiff and hard, consult your doctor.
If the cause of the condition is a tumor, the doctor will perform the biopsy, i.e. take a small sample of the tissue for a laboratory scan to determine whether the tumor is benign or malignant. The procedure is completely painless, simple and, with local anesthesia, takes a few minutes.
Most benign tumors do not cause any problems, and doctors usually only monitor them (semi-annual or annual controls) to check that they have not become malignant.
Large benign tumors on the lips can be removed, and the face will return to the original condition with one or more plastic surgery procedures. The appearance of the gums can usually be repaired by special dentures or plates (prostheses).
Treatment of malignant tumors, and its success, depends on the stage of the disease. If the tumor is discovered early and has not spread, it is removed surgically. If the tumor is spread, cancer cells are destroyed by radiotherapy. In some cases radio therapy is combined with cytostatics. About 75% of early diagnosed tumors of mouth and tongue can be completely cured.