Smoking causes cancer, and Gum cancer is just one of several cancers caused by smoking. Smokers have consistently been the greatest at-risk group for oral cancer over the decades. And it's not just smoking, but using any tobacco products: The risk of gum and cheek cancers is 50 times greater in long-term smokeless tobacco users [source: American Cancer Society]. People who drink, especially those who drink heavily, are also a higher risk group. And researchers have found that the risk for developing an oral cancer is 30 times greater when heavy smokers are also heavy drinkers [source: American Cancer Society].
Other causes of oral cancers include sun exposure (a common cause of lip cancer), eating too few fruits and vegetables, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, pre-cancerous conditions called leukoplakia (white lesions) and erythroplakia (red lesions), chronic periodontitis and, maybe more commonly than previously suspected, viruses. It's estimated that viral infections such as hepatitis B (HBV), Epstein-Barr (EBV) and human papillomavirus (HPV) contribute to 15 to 20 percent of all cancers [source: Brigham and Women's Hospital]. HPV, for example, is associated with nearly all instances of cervical cancer, and more recently has been linked to about 60 percent of oropharyngeal cancers (cancers in the back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils) [source: CDC, Harmon ]. Chronic irritation inside the mouth, such as from poorly fitted dental work, may also be a potential aggravator. The common link here? These are all things that could cause cell damage, and damaged cells may become cancerous.
Treating oral cancers includes, first, staging. The size of the tumor or lesion and its location are assessed, as is whether or not the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or blood vessels and if there is a secondary cancer present. If gingival cancer is suspected, the bone and periodontal ligament will also be assessed. The patient's age and overall health as well as the patient's ability to chew, swallow and speak are also evaluated. Surgery and radiation therapy are the two most commonly used treatments for most types of oral cancer, including gum cancer.
When cancer affects the lower gums treatment often includes surgery, which may require removing part of the jawbone (mandible) and placing a skin graft, depending on advancement or the location of the tumor, in addition to radiation therapy. If the cancer affects the upper gums, the treatment plan often includes surgery, with or without radiation. Chemotherapy and other treatments, including clinical trials, are often tried in the more advanced stages of oral cancer, but treatments are always tailored to a patient's specific stage and needs.
Overall, the five-year relative survival rate for all types of oral cancers is just shy of 61 percent, but for gingival cancer the rate drops to 26 percent [source: National Cancer Institute, Sedano]. Early detection is key, as is practicing ways to avoid gum and other oral cancers: Quit using all tobacco products, quit drinking alcohol, fix any untreated dental problems and remember to brush and floss regularly.