Get Smart about Oral Cancer

Posted on April 11, 2016 in General oral health

Oral CancerAbout Oral Cancer
Each day in the United States, 132 individuals are diagnosed with oral cancer, and each hour, someone will die from oral cancer.1 In all, over 39,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer each year. As a result of medical and technological advances and early detection, the survival rate has steadily improved over the last 30 years. About 60 percent of people diagnosed with oral cancer will survive for at least five years2 and if caught early, the five-year survival rate jumps to 80 to 90 percent.3 Oral cancer is a serious disease, and it's important to familiarize yourself with the risk factors and symptoms.

Types of Oral Cancer
Oral cancer can affect any part of your mouth, including gums, cheeks, tongue and lips. Lip cancer is the most common form of oral cancer.4 Unfortunately, a majority of oral cancer cases are not found until they are already in a late stage. Visiting the dentist and receiving oral cancer screenings during a regular dental exam can greatly increase the chance of finding the disease early in its most treatable stage. Early stage symptoms include small red or white spots and mouth sores that do not heal.

Risks of Oral Cancer
Oral cancer can have many causes, including genetics, tobacco (smoking and chewing) or heavy alcohol use, poor dietary habits, or environmental factors. Oral cancer can't always be prevented, but there are some behaviors you can avoid to help decrease your risk. People who use tobacco products or consume excessive amounts of alcohol tend to have a higher risk for oral cancer. Those who use tobacco products and consume alcohol in excess have the highest risk. According to the American Dental Association, 25 percent of oral cancer patients have no known risk factors, and the fastest growing segments of those who are diagnosed with oral cancer are non-smokers under the age of 50. Although you can't control the genes you inherit, you do have control over your lifestyle choices.

Certain strands of human papillomavirus (HPV) can also increase the risk of developing oral cancer.  HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and sexual intercourse (including oral sex) and has been detected in up to 36 percent of oral cancer patients.5 Most people will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives.  Although 90 percent of HPV infections clear on their own within two years, persistent or recurring infections can lead to more serious health conditions like oral cancer.6

You can lower your oral cancer risk by adopting healthy habits. Following a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables – at least five servings daily – has proven beneficial. Using lip balm with SPF while outside in the sun will also help lower your risk by blocking harmful UV rays.

Treatment Options for Oral Cancer
If you develop oral cancer, several treatment options are available. Which kind of treatment you receive depends on the size and location of the tumor and the stage or extent of the disease. Oral cancer treatment includes surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of the three depending on the cancer stage.

  • Surgery:The goal of surgery is to remove the cancerous tumors from the oral cavity and lymph nodes.
  • Radiation:Radiation attempts to kill cancer cells using X-rays. This treatment is sometimes used to shrink a tumor before surgery, so the operation can be performed on a smaller scale.
  • Chemotherapy:Chemotherapy is intended to reduce the chance that the cancer will spread to other parts of the body. Chemotherapy can be given along with radiation to improve its effectiveness. It also may be given after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.7

Visit Your Dentist
Finally, make sure you visit your dentist regularly. During your regular dental exam, your dentist will screen for oral cancer. Early detection can improve your chance of a successful treatment of oral cancer. You should also conduct a self-exam for oral cancer once a month, using a mirror to check for any unusual patches or sores in the mouth or throat.8  Both prevention and early detection are key to keeping oral cancer at bay – and may even save a life!


3 American Cancer Society, Surveillance Research 2014.
5 American Cancer Society: Detailed Guide: Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer.”