Lip cancer doesn't get as much attention as other types of oral cancer, but it's not an uncommon condition. Nearly one in five people will develop skin cancer during their life which includes the lips, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, so it's important to be aware of the signs of this condition.
How it happens
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a major risk factor for developing this type of cancer. Because UV rays primarily come from sunlight, you may already know to apply sunscreen to exposed skin. But don't forget to protect your lips, too.
Using tobacco and drinking alcohol are also well-known contributors to oral cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, people who currently smoke are about 10 times more likely to develop oral cancer than nonsmokers. In addition, those who drink three to four alcoholic beverages a day are twice as likely to develop oral cancer than those who do not. Tobacco and alcohol are particularly unhealthy if consumed together; the risk of oral cancer is two to three times greater when combined.
Lip cancer warning signs
Many visible irregularities can signal the development of lip cancer, as described by the American Cancer Society. You may notice a red patch on your lip that becomes crusty, itchy or bleeds. Lumps or wart-like growths on the lips can be a cause for action, as well. You may also notice open sores on your lips, and although these may look or feel like cold sores, they won't heal the same way. Keep in mind the warning signs of lip cancer can be present as merely a pale area that looks like a scar – or look different from these descriptions entirely. If you notice a change in your lips' appearance, you should always get it examined by your dentist.
Early diagnosis is very important, as lip cancers are almost always curable when they're caught early. To this end, you need to check your lips regularly for changes that could be signs of cancer. It's also important to see your dentist for scheduled oral cancer screenings, during which time he or she will examine your lips and the rest of your mouth for tissues that are cancerous – visibly or otherwise. If any suspicious tissue is indeed found, it can be biopsied.
Lip cancer treatment
There are two main treatments used to treat this type of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. The first is a style of surgery wherein the infected tissue on your lip is removed, along with some of the surrounding healthy tissue to make sure all cancerous cells are eliminated. Because your lips are a highly visible part of your body, your dentist may refer you to a plastic surgeon to restore them to their original appearance.
Radiation therapy is the other treatment that is often used. This process applies X-rays and other safe sources of radiation to kill the cancer cells that have infected your mouth. Be sure to arrange a dental exam before you receive radiation therapy, so that existing dental problems like gum disease can be treated first. If you do have a condition affecting your gums or teeth, your dentist may give you a prescription for an antimicrobial rinse like Colgate® PerioGard® before proceeding with your cancer treatment.
Lip cancer can be treated if it's found early, so make sure you're paying attention to your lips while seeing your dentist regularly for oral cancer screenings. If you notice any changes, make an appointment with your dentist right away.