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Cancer of the palate is a cancerous growth that affects the roof of a person's mouth. The roof of the mouth is called the palate, and it has two parts to it. The hard part consists of a bony frontal portion, which is referred to as the hard palate. The softer part at the back is referred to as the soft palate. Cancer can form in either part of the palate; fortunately, palate cancer is a rare condition.
There's a variety of symptoms that may indicate palate cancer. They include painful mouth swelling, lumps, and mouth ulcers. Symptoms such as difficult and uncomfortable swallowing may also point to cancer of the palate. Other symptoms include night sweats and weight loss. It's important to note that these symptoms can indicate other types of conditions instead of palate cancer; as such, it is critical to be evaluated by a doctor.
To diagnose cancer of the palate, a doctor takes a complete patient history and performs an examination. The doctor will look for abnormalities of the mouth and take a tissue sample, which is referred to as a biopsy. A pathologist in a laboratory will look for cancer cells within this tissue sample. Besides the biopsy, a doctor may order other tests to determine whether or not the cancer cells have spread beyond the roof of the mouth. These tests may include x-rays, CT (computed tomography) scans, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) tests, and ultrasounds; in some cases PET (positron emission tomography) scans, which use radioactive materials, are also used to locate actively growing cancerous tissue.
When palate cancer is caught early, treatment is more likely to be successful. Radiation therapy or chemotherapy is often used to treat the disease. In some cases, treatment requires both radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Sometimes surgery is necessary, particularly when the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes of the neck or other parts of the body. Laser microsurgery may even be used for removing small- to medium-sized tumors.
In some cases, such as when the cancer spreads and the patient's life is threatened, it is necessary to remove whole portions of the palate. When this occurs, reconstructive surgery may be used to provide a more normal appearance and install tissue flaps and prosthetics that allow the patient to speak and swallow following surgery. Additionally, rehabilitation therapy may be necessary to help the patient overcome speech and swallowing difficulties, learn to choose foods that will minimize chewing and swallowing problems, and adjust to regular life following surgery. Likewise, patients may receive help with quitting smoking if they so desire.
One of the top causes of palate cancer is tobacco use. In fact, it is estimated that up to 90 percent of oral cancers are caused by cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoking. Chewing tobacco and snuff contribute to that statistic as well. Also implicated in the development of oral cancer are alcoholic beverages and conditions like leukoplakia, which causes white patches in the mouth.