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Oral Cancer

Regular trips to the dentist offer more than the opportunity to check for cavities and walk away with freshly polished teeth. These preventive care visits can help detect illnesses and diseases, especially oral cancer, in early and more treatable stages.

Oral cancer, as defined by the American Cancer Society, is cancer that starts in the oral cavity. This includes the lips, the mouth and the throat at the back of the mouth. Each year, approximately 21,000 men and 9,000 women are diagnosed with this disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the five-year survival rate is only about 50 percent.

Risk factors

Tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes and smokeless products, causes most oral cancers. Human Papillomavirus infection, which is contracted through sexual activity, is being linked to more and more cases.

Additional risk factors include:

  • Heavy drinking – The heavier the use, the higher the risk; the American Cancer Society states that 7 of 10 patients with oral cancer are heavy drinkers
  • Heavy drinking and smoking – The ACS reports that some studies show this combination increases oral cancer risk 100 times more than in those who do not smoke or drink
  • Ultraviolet light – Increases the risk of lip cancer
  • Gender – Men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer, but the numbers have increased among women in recent years.
  • Age – Most common in individuals older than 60; however, the average age is dropping due to an increase in cases among younger men
  • Diet – Many studies link increased risk to a diet low in fruits and vegetables


The National Cancer Institute lists the following as symptoms of oral cancers:

  • Patches inside your mouth or on your lips:
    • White patches (leukoplakia) are the most common. White patches sometimes become malignant.
    • Mixed red and white patches (erythroleukoplakia) are more likely than white patches to become malignant.
    • Red patches (erythroplakia) are brightly colored, smooth areas that often become malignant.
  • A sore on your lip or in your mouth that doesn't heal
  • Bleeding in your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • Difficulty wearing dentures
  • A lump in your neck
  • An earache that doesn't go away
  • Numbness of lower lip and chin


Regular dental exams play an important role in early detection and treatment of oral cancer. It may be elusive until more advanced stages since its symptoms tend to overlap with other health and dental problems. On the other hand, the National Cancer Institute reminds people that usually the symptoms listed above are not from cancer, but rather are linked to another health problem. Staying on top of preventive care by visiting your health care and dental providers regularly—and more often when you detect concerns—will help track changes to your health, so you both know what is cause for alarm and what is not. If you don’t have health insurance, consider purchasing a plan to make care more affordable.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research outlines a typical oral health screening as follows; it’s a painless and simple procedure that takes only a couple of minutes:

  1. Preparing for the exam: If you have dentures (plates) or partials, you will be asked to remove them.
  2. Your health care provider will inspect your face, neck, lips and mouth to look for any signs of cancer.
  3. With both hands, he or she will feel the area under your jaw and the side of your neck, checking for lumps that may suggest cancer.
  4. He or she will then look at and feel the insides of your lips and cheeks to check for possible signs of cancer, such as red and/or white patches.
  5. Next, your provider will have you stick out your tongue so it can be checked for swelling or abnormal color or texture.
  6. Using gauze, he or she will then gently pull your tongue to one side, then the other, to check the base of your tongue. The underside of your tongue will also be checked.
  7. In addition, he or she will look at the roof and floor of your mouth, as well as the back of your throat.
  8. Finally, your provider will put one finger on the floor of your mouth and, with the other hand under your chin, gently press down to check for lumps or sensitivity.

If a clinical exam reveals areas of concern, your dentist may use dyes and lights or a biopsy to explore the issue further.

Take time to self-screen as well. Look and feel for changes such as lumps, sores that don’t heal, and other symptoms, as listed above. If you have concerns, schedule an appointment with your dentist to discuss them.

If cost or lack of insurance prevents you from seeing a dentist, keep in mind that Oral Cancer Awareness Month takes place each April. In many communities, various organizations and practices hold free oral cancer screenings to create awareness.


The American Dental Association states that finding and removing epithelial dysplasias—lesions that may become cancerous—before they become cancers is one of the most effective methods for reducing the incidence of cancer.

Healthy lifestyle habits that may decrease risk include:

  • Limiting exposure to UV light and protecting your skin
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Avoiding tobacco
  • Minimizing alcohol use
  • Getting an HPV vaccine
  • Practicing safe sexual activity

Remember: Visit your dentist routinely, and schedule additional appointments when concerns arise—don’t hold out until your preventive visit; it may be too late!


For more information on oral cancer and its treatment, visit the following trusted sites:

The American Cancer Society

The National Cancer Institute

The Oral Cancer Foundation

The American Dental Association

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

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