Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is cancer of the mouth or throat. This year, an estimated 53,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer and more than 10,900 will die of the disease. Oral cancer is twice as common in men as in women.

Not using tobacco and not drinking alcohol in excess can prevent most oral cancer. However, one in four people diagnosed with oral cancer has no risk factors. It’s important to see your dentist regularly for screenings.

In 2012, there were nearly 40,000 new cases of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx diagnosed in the United States and nearly 9,000 deaths. The 5-year survival rate for these cancers is about 59 percent. Mortality from oral cancer is nearly twice as high in some minorities (especially black males) as it is in whites. Preventing high risk behaviors, that include cigarette, cigar or pipe smoking, use of smokeless tobacco, and excessive use of alcohol are critical in preventing oral cancers. Early detection is key to increasing the survival rate for these cancers. Oral human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease, can cause cancers in the back of the throat, called “oropharyngeal cancers.” More research is needed to determine whether HPV itself causes oropharyngeal cancers, or if other factors (such as smoking or chewing tobacco) interact with HPV to cause these cancers.

You might be at increased risk for oral cancer if you:

  • Are older than 55
  • Chew or smoke tobacco
  • Drink alcohol in excess
  • Are exposed to sunlight for long periods of time
  • Have a certain type of human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Have an immune system that has been weakened by certain medications
  • Have the skin disease lichen planus, graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) or certain inherited conditions of the blood 

Don’t wait for oral cancer symptoms to appear. Get screened according to guidelines. If you do notice any of the following symptoms, talk with your health care professional.

  • White or red patches on lips, gum, tongue or mouth lining
  • A lump which can be felt inside the mouth or on the neck
  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking
  • Hoarseness lasting a long time
  • Numbness or pain in any area of the mouth that doesn’t go away
  • Swelling of the jaw
  • Loosening of teeth
  • Difficulty wearing dentures
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • A sore on the lips or in the mouth that doesn’t go away
  • An earache that doesn’t go away

Oral cancer is a highly preventable disease and also very treatable, if caught early.

  • Don’t use tobacco in any form. If you use tobacco, quit.
  • Limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day if you’re a woman or two drinks per day if you’re a man
  • Stay out of the sun, especially between 10 am and 4 pm when sunlight is strongest
  • Always use lip balm with SPF 30 or higher
  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Have an oral cancer screening by your dentist at your regular check-up.
  • Look at your mouth in a mirror once a month. If you see something different, tell your dentist.

Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and newer targeted therapies may be used alone or in combination.



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