Oral cancer isn’t one we hear about as often as some. Yet nearly 53,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year. Of those diagnosed this year, about 10,000 will die. That’s more than one person per hour every single day.

Oral cancer is also known as mouth or oral cavity cancer. As it progresses, it can interfere with one’s ability to breathe, talk, eat, chew, or swallow. Oral cancer is usually found in the lips, tongue, and floor of the mouth. Sometimes oral cancer begins in the lining of the lips and cheeks, the minor salivary glands, the roof of the mouth, and the gums.

Here’s the really important part: When discovered early, the treatment of oral cancer is likely to be successful. That’s why we want you to know your risks and to get checked.

Who Is Likely to Develop Oral Cancer?

Historically, a majority of oral cancer cases have appeared in people over the age of 40; however, it is now occurring more frequently in younger patients. A couple of reasons this may be is the prevalence of the sexually transmitted HPV version 16 in younger populations and the increased popularity of smokeless tobacco.

In terms of gender, for decades oral cancer affected one woman for every six men, but in more recent years, the ratio has become one woman for every two men. Oral cancer occurs about twice as often in the black population as it does in whites. Some people with oral cancer have no known risk factors while others with several risk factors never develop the disease. It’s important to address any changes in your oral health with a professional as soon as possible to rule out the possibility of oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Risk Factors

  • Tobacco Users – According to the Cancer Treatment Centers For America, about 80 percent of people with oral cancer use tobacco. The longer people use tobacco and the amount they use increases that risk. It’s important to note that both smoked and chewed tobacco are significant risk factors for oral cancer even though chewing tobacco is frequently viewed as a less harmful habit.
  • Alcohol – Along with tobacco, alcohol is a leading cause of oral cancer. Heavy drinkers or those who consume more than 21 alcoholic drinks each week are at high risk for developing the disease. The combination of tobacco and alcohol is particularly dangerous. People who drink alcohol and smoke are six times more likely to get oral cancer than people who do not drink or smoke.
  • HPV (Human papillomavirus) infection – HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus, which infects about 40 million Americans today. Of the 200 strains of HPV, a majority are thought to be harmless. Most Americans will have some version of HPV in their lifetimes, and even be exposed to cancer-causing versions of it. However, only approximately 1 percent of those infected, will lack immunity to respond to the HPV16 strain, which is a primary causative agent in oropharyngeal cancer as well. In short, just because you contract HPV does not mean you are at high risk of developing oral cancer.

Other risk factors include:

  • Age: The likelihood of developing oral cancer increases with age.
  • Gender: About two-thirds of people diagnosed with oral cancer are men.
  • Prolonged sun exposure.
  • Radiation exposure.
  • Poor nutrition, especially a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables.
  • Long-term irritation caused by ill-fitting dentures.
  • Prolonged use of immunosuppressive drugs.
  • Genetic disorders and disease that affect the oral cavity.

What are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer

The most common sign of oral cancer is a sore in the mouth that does not heal. There are many benign tissue changes that occur in your mouth, and some things as simple as a bite on the inside of your cheek may mimic the look of a dangerous tissue change. That’s why it is essential to have a professional check any sore or discolored area of your mouth that does not heal within 14 days.

Other common symptoms of oral cancer may include:

  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the mouth
  • Difficulty or pain when chewing or swallowing
  • Pressure or pain when moving the jaw or tongue
  • Swelling in the mouth or jaw
  • A change in one’s voice
  • A lump in the mouth, throat, or on the lips
  • Thickening lump or tissue in the cheek
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
  • A sore throat feeling that doesn’t go away
  • Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Pain in one or both ears

Diagnosing Oral Cancer : Get Checked

Early diagnosis gives you the best chance of successful treatment. Talk to your dentist or doctor immediately if you notice something irregular in your mouth. Your dentist will check your mouth and neck during your visits. He or she may also offer a scan of your cells. This typically costs a little more, but it’s worth doing once every two years or so, especially if you’re at a higher risk for oral cancer.

If you are a smoker or heavy drinker, you should also ask your primary care physician for a head and neck cancer examination each year. This is a simple non-invasive procedure that takes about 15 minutes. Your doctor will check your mouth, nose, throat, and neck for lumps and irregularities.

Treatment of Oral Cancer

Successful treatment of oral cancers is usually a multidisciplinary approach involving the efforts of surgeons, radiation and chemotherapy oncologists, dental practitioners, nutritionists, and rehabilitation and restorative specialists. Whether a patient has surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or some combination thereof is dependent on the stage of development of cancer.

Prevention of Oral Cancer

Thankfully, oral cancers are among the most preventable of all cancers.

  • Here are a few ways to minimize your risk:
  • Avoid tobacco in all forms.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Limit sun exposure. Wear a hat, sunscreen, and lip balm with SPF.
  • Pay attention to your nutrition. Eat a healthy, balanced diet including a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Remove your dentures at night and clean them each day.
  • Visit a dentist at least once a year for a complete oral examination. If wearing dentures, allow your dentist to evaluate them at your yearly exam.

Do you have questions about oral cancer? Ask your Generations Family Practice physician about your risks.