6 myths and facts about oral cancer

Dentist talking to patient

Oral cancer is one of the deadliest diseases of the mouth, but misconceptions about the disease are common. Here are the facts behind six top myths.

Myth #1: Oral cancer is rare.

Fact: More people in the U.S. were diagnosed with mouth or throat cancer in 2017 than cancers of the cervix or stomach, according to an estimate by the Oral Cancer Foundation. Together, mouth and throat cancers rank sixth among most common cancers worldwide, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International.

Myth #2: I'm young, so I don't have to worry about oral cancer.

Fact: Although your oral cancer risk increases after age 50, not all forms of the disease are linked to age. A growing number of young people are developing the disease, due to a possible link between the cancer and sexually transmitted forms of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Myth #3: Only smokers get oral cancer.

Fact: Nicotine and tobacco use is a major risk factor for oral cancer, but you can develop the disease even if you aren't a smoker. Drinking alcohol without smoking can still increase your risk, as can HPV. Another major risk factor for the disease is chewing betel quid. This practice, which originates from South Asia, involves chewing the leaf of the betel plant wrapped around the areca nut. Genetics can also play a role in developing the disease.

Myth #4: There's nothing I can do to protect myself from oral cancer.

Fact: You can lower your risk of oral cancer by quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol and eating more veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Practice safe sex to reduce your risk of getting cancer-linked strains of HPV, and limit your exposure to the sun. Before heading outdoors, always apply lip balm with an SPF of at least 30.

Myth #5: Only high-risk patients are screened for oral cancer.

Fact: Screening for oral cancer is a part of any comprehensive adult dental exam. Your dentist will examine your mouth, tongue, throat and lymph nodes for any lumps, sores or discoloration. This screening is noninvasive and doesn't involve radiation. There is no additional cost. If your dentist finds any signs of cancer, he or she will perform a biopsy or refer you to a specialist.

Myth #6: It's easy to spot the signs of oral cancer.

Fact: HPV-linked forms of mouth and throat cancer can occur in hard-to-notice places, such as the tonsils, the lymph nodes and the base of the tongue. This makes it especially important to visit your dentist for regular exams. Early diagnosis and treatment can help stop the cancer before it spreads, increasing your life expectancy.

The oral health information on this website 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.

Published: March 2018