Oral cancer: what you need to know

Oral cancer, the sixth most common cancer, accounts for almost 4 percent of all cancers diagnosed, with more than 30,000 new cases of oral cancer reported annually in the United States. The vast majority of oral cancers occur in people older than 45 years, with men being twice as likely as women to develop the disease.

If not diagnosed and treated in its early stages, oral cancer can spread, leading to chronic pain, loss of function, irreparable facial and oral disfigurement, and even death. Oral cancer accounts for roughly 8,000 deaths annually (about 3 percent of all cancer-caused deaths).

Because oral cancer is usually not diagnosed in its early stages, less than half of all oral cancer patients are cured. Of all major cancers, oral cancer has the worst five-year survival rate at about 57 percent.

The good news is that if oral cancer is caught early enough, your chances for survival increase dramatically – from 57 percent to more than 80 percent. What’s the best way to catch it early? Be sure to visit your dentist regularly for oral examinations, which typically include an oral cancer screening in the form of a soft tissue exam. If you are not sure if your dentist has conducted a soft tissue exam, ask him or her to perform this screening for oral cancer, which includes a visual inspection of the oral cavity and palpation of the head, neck and oral cavity.

What causes oral cancer?

Scientists aren't sure of the exact cause of oral cancer. However, use of tobacco products, heavy alcohol consumption, human papilloma virus (HPV) infections, as well as excessive exposure to the sun have been found to increase the risk of developing oral cancer.

What are the warning signs?

The most frequent oral cancer sites are the tongue, the floor of the mouth, soft palate tissues in back of the tongue, lips and gums. Oral cancer shows up as red, white or discolored lesions, patches or lumps in or around the mouth, and it is typically painless in its early stages. As the malignant cancer spreads and destroys healthy oral tissue, the lesions or lumps may become painful. However, oral cancer is difficult to self-diagnose so routine dental exams are strongly recommended. See your dentist immediately if you observe:

  • any sore that persists longer than two weeks;
  • a swelling, growth or lump anywhere in or near the mouth or neck;
  • white or red patches in the mouth or on the lips;
  • repeated bleeding from the mouth or throat; or
  • difficulty swallowing or persistent hoarseness.

How does a dentist screen for oral cancer?

Your dentist should screen for oral cancer during routine checkups. He or she feels for lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, cheeks and oral cavity, and thoroughly examines the soft tissues in your mouth, specifically looking for any sores or discolored tissues.

How is oral cancer treated?

If your dentist suspects oral cancer, a biopsy of the lesion is ordered to confirm the diagnosis. You would need to visit an oral surgeon for the removal of the tumors, which may cause disfiguration. Radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be used as part of the treatment and would require a visit to a specialist.

What can I do to prevent oral cancer?

You can help prevent oral cancer by not smoking, using spit tobacco and drinking excessive alcohol. When tobacco and alcohol use are combined, the risk of oral cancer increases 15 times more than for non-users of tobacco and alcohol products. Research suggests that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables may safeguard against oral cancer.

Because successful treatment and rehabilitation are dependent on early detection, it is extremely important to see your dentist for regular checkups including an oral cancer screening at least once a year. Survival rates greatly increase the earlier oral cancer is discovered and treated. During your next dental visit, ask your dentist to do an oral cancer screening.

What do dentists recommend to help you reduce the risk for developing oral cancer?

You and your dentist should discuss lifestyle strategies that can lower your risks for developing oral cancer. Your dentist is trained to counsel you on the types of oral health issues than can arise from smoking, the use of other tobacco products, heavy alcohol or recreational drug use and inadequate nutrition. Your dentist will encourage you in your efforts to develop a healthy lifestyle, and he or she may recommend that you seek a formal smoking or alcohol cessation program.

Information courtesy of the Academy of General Dentistry
Last updated: April 2010

The oral health information on this web site is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.

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