Palate Cancer: Signs, Symptoms and Risk Factors

Your mouth is made up of more than just teeth and gums. All of the different tissue, muscles and nerves have an important part to play in everything from eating to speech. Your soft palate – the soft tissue at the roof of your mouth nearing the back of your throat – acts as a protective shield for your body. It can close off to protect your nasal passages when you sneeze or close off your airways when gagging. But, with certain habits and risk factors, it's possible to suffer from palate cancer. Understanding how cancer of the palate is different than other oral cancers can help you better assess your risk factors and know when it's time to talk to your doctor.

Types of Palate Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, 90 percent of all oral and oropharynx cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. (The palate is considered part of the oropharynx.) Squamous cell carcinomas are a type of cancer that affect the squamous cell, the top- and mid-level layers of skin and tissue. This means that palate-based cancer usually starts on the surface of the tissue. Squamous cell carcinomas can grow quickly, so if you notice scaly bumps or small tumors on your soft palate, it's important to talk to your health care provider immediately. Less than 5 percent of oral cancers are verrucous carcinomas, which grow slowly but may penetrate deeper layers of skin and spread to other areas of the body.

Oral and oropharynx cancers can affect a number of areas of the mouth and are part of a group referred to as head and neck cancers. The National Cancer Institute points out that these cancers can affect different parts of the mouth and throat, such as the tonsils, the base of the tongue, the soft palate or uvula, and the posterior pharyngeal wall, or back of the throat.

Palate Cancer Signs and Symptoms

The Cleveland Clinic points out that the prognosis for someone with an oropharyngeal cancer depends heavily on the health of the person and their personal risk factors. Regardless, early detection and ongoing care are key in improving the chances for a positive outcome. Some of the signs and symptoms of hard palate cancer, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, include:

  • Bad breath
  • Loose teeth
  • Discomfort around the teeth
  • Dentures that don't fit anymore
  • Difficulty swallowing and moving your jaw
  • A lump in the neck

Anytime you have symptoms in your mouth that don't resolve in two weeks, it's time to talk to your health care provider.

Risk Factors

Oral cancers are usually the result of lifestyle and habits, and soft palate cancer is no different. Some of the risky behavior that can lead to this type of cancer include heavy tobacco and alcohol use (particularly when used together), infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), being older than 40, and a poor diet.

Treatment Options

Because palate of the cancer is typically a squamous cell carcinoma, swift removal is usually the first course of action to stop the spread. The Mayo Clinic notes that a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy may be used to remove cancer cells and kill any remaining cells in the surgical area. Your doctor will suggest a treatment plan specifically for the location, size and type of oral cancer you have, so it's important to make an appointment as soon as you realize you have some of the symptoms.

Like other types of oral cancer, early detection is the key to ensuring that cancer of your palate is addressed quickly. Doing so can cause a drastic increase in chances for not only survival, but removal with less damage done to the surrounding tissue. Visit your dentist regularly and keep up great oral health habits, such as brushing with a toothpaste like Colgate Total Daily Repair, which repairs early teeth and gum damage.

When in doubt, have your dentist check for changes and then make an appointment with your doctor if you're concerned.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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