Most people have heard of melanomas, but many have only heard of them occurring along the skin. This makes sense since most melanomas are caused by exposure to UV light. However, they can also occur within the mouth, and the complications can be extremely serious.
What is an oral melanoma?
A melanoma is a type of cancer. It develops from melanocytes, which are the cells that create pigment. It is for this reason that melanomas are often detected due to changes in skin colour. Like other types of cancer, a melanoma can grow and spread to other parts of the body. An oral melanoma is simply one that occurs within the mouth. They are most common between 40 and 70 years, with a mean age of 55 years, and they are three times more common in men than in women.
Why are oral melanomas so serious?
An oral melanoma is a very rare condition. In fact, experts have predicted that they account for only 2% of all melanomas. However, this means that many people do not know about them, so they may ignore any symptoms. Unfortunately, oral melanomas can be extremely aggressive, with experts also underlining the importance of early detection and treatment. The 5-year survival rate is estimated to be between 4.5% and 48%, and the cancer can spread to other parts of the body, including the lungs, brain and lymph nodes.
What are the symptoms of oral melanoma?
As with other kinds of melanoma, oral melanomas are typically detected thanks to a change in pigment colour. You or your dentist may notice a dark spot along your gums, or along another portion of the tissue inside your mouth. That spot will normally start to spread, and it will typically become lighter as it does so.
Further symptoms include pain, particularly while chewing or swallowing, and unexplained feelings of fatigue or nausea. However, many oral melanomas present no symptoms beyond pigment colour change.
How are oral melanomas treated?
It's important to remember that the signs detailed above do not always mean melanoma, but it's still important to get them checked as quickly as possible. Consider them a dental emergency and book an appointment as soon as you can.
Treatment will largely depend on the progression of the disease. Firstly, a biopsy or imaging scan will determine the extent of growth. The surgical removal of the tumour may be possible, though some patients will require chemotherapy or immunotherapy. The success of such treatments will vary depending on how swiftly the condition was spotted and treated.