What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer

Posted on April 6, 2015 in General oral health

Dentist and assistant in exam room with man in chair smilingThanks to technological advances, medical knowledge and early detection, we've seen some progress in the fight against oral cancer over the last 30 years. About 60 percent of people diagnosed with oral cancer will survive for at least five years.1 Although survival rates have risen steadily, oral cancer is a serious condition, and it's important to know the risk factors and symptoms. In honor of Oral Cancer Awareness month, take a few minutes to make sure you're educated about the disease.


There are a variety of oral cancers, including cancer of the lip, mouth and tongue. Lip cancer is the most common form of oral cancer.2 Early diagnosis provides the best outlook for oral cancer patients. Oral cancer can be difficult to detect, and in most cases it has progressed before it is discovered.  Visiting the dentist and receiving oral cancer screenings during your regular dental exam can greatly increase the chance of finding the disease early in its most treatable stage.


Oral cancer can't always be prevented, but there are some behaviors you can avoid to help decrease your risk. Using tobacco and consuming excessive amounts of alcohol have both been linked to oral cancer. Smokers are six times more likely to develop oral cancer than nonsmokers, but smokers who quit will cut that risk in half in just five years. When it comes to alcohol, less is more. The risk for oral cancer increases with the amount of alcoholic drinks consumed daily.3

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.  HPV DNA (a sign of HPV infection) can be detected in about 2 out of 3 oropharyngeal cancers, and HPV16 is linked to throat cancer.4 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.5

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 sunscreen before spending time in the sun will also help lower your risk by blocking harmful UV rays.

Treatment Options

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.

  • 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.6

Visit Your Dentist

Finally, make sure you keep regular dental checkups to allow your dentist to screen for oral cancer. According to the American Dental Association, 25 percent of people with oral cancer had no known risk factors prior to getting the disease, so it is important to get routine dental exams to help detect oral cancer at its earliest stage.7 You should also perform your own self-checks for oral cancer once a month, using a mirror to check for any unusual patches or sores in the mouth or throat.8

1 http://oralhealth.deltadental.com/Search/22,21503
2 http://www.cancercenter.com/oral-cancer/types/
3 http://oralhealth.deltadental.com/Search/22,21468
4 http://documents.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003128-pdf.pdf
5 http://www.cdc.gov/std/stats/sti-estimates-fact-sheet-feb-2013.pdf
6 http://oralhealth.deltadental.com/Search/22,21476
7 http://oralhealth.deltadental.com/Search/22,21468
8 http://oralhealth.deltadental.com/Search/22,21470