When we worry about cancer, chances are it's breast, prostate, lung, colon or maybe melanoma -- the cancers that are so prevalent in the United States that one or more are bound to have touched any American's lives. But there are hundreds of types of cancers, affecting almost every part of our bodies.
Oral cancer affects roughly one percent, or about 250,000), of Americans [source: National Cancer Institute]. It's actually a group of cancers that include cancer of the tongue, the floor of the mouth (under the tongue), the roof of the mouth, the gums, the inside of the cheeks and the area behind the wisdom teeth (called the retromolar trigone). Gum cancer, in particular, accounts for fewer than 1.5 percent of all oral cancers [source: National Cancer Institute].
Didn't think you could get cancer in your gums? Gum cancer develops in the gingiva. Gingiva is the soft tissue that covers the part of the jawbone that holds your teeth: In other words, your gums. More than 90 percent of all oral cancers, including gum cancer, are a form of cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that cover our skin and cover and line internal organs, including the soft tissue inside the mouth and throat. Squamous cells, just as all other cells in our body, go through a three-part life cycle. They grow, they divide and they die. Cancer cells begin as normal cells but what makes them different is they begin to grow out of control, and unlike normal cells these abnormal types don't die. They multiply, and they also spread to other tissues in the body. Abnormal cells may develop anywhere from bones to nerve tissue to organs. Gum cancer, like many other cancers, begins with abnormal squamous cell development.
The remaining oral cancer diagnoses include verrucous carcinomas, a type of squamous cell carcinoma that occurs in the mucus membranes (the lining of the mouth). Fewer than 5 percent of all oral cavity cancers are diagnosed as verrucous carcinomas. There are also several kinds of minor salivary gland cancers (salivary glands are found in the mouth, neck and throat), but these are also rare.
Now that we know what they are, let's learn what oral and gum cancers look like, and what to do if you find an abnormal spot in your own mouth.