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How Oral Cancer Spreads

Oral cancer, like all cancers, begins in cells. Healthy cells grow and divide to form new cells, which take the place of old cells that die off.

But sometimes this process goes haywire. Cells needlessly form and divide, or old cells refuse to die off. These extra cells form tumors, or growths. Not all tumors are cancerous; but some are.

When Cancer Metastasizes

The first place cancer forms in the body is called the primary tumor. Oral cancer, like all cancers, can spread to other parts of the body. This is called metastasis. When a cancer spreads, it is said to have metastasized.

  • Cancer can spread in three ways:

  • It can invade nearby tissue.

  • It can pass through the lymph vessels to other areas of the body.

  • It can travel through blood vessels to other areas.

The first place oral cancer usually spreads is the lymph nodes.

Stages of Cancer

The stage of cancer is how doctors describe the size of a cancer tumor and whether it has spread. There are five stages of oral cancer—from stage 0 to stage IV. Knowing the stage of the cancer helps your health care team determine the best treatments.

“What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer.” National Cancer Institute, December 23, 2009. www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/oral Accessed 2013.

“Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment. Patient Version.” National Cancer Institute, May 9, 2013. www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/lip-and-oral-cavity/patient Accessed 2013.

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