Oral, Head, Neck Cancer Awareness Week

A Description Of Oral Cancer or Cancer of the Mouth

Cancer can affect any part of the mouth including the lips, gums, cheeks, tongue and hard or soft palate. The most common symptom of oral cancer is a sore in the mouth that bleeds easily and does not heal. Another common sign of oral cancer is pain or numbness, which does not go away, or a change in the way the teeth fit together. Other signs and symptoms could include:

  • A lump or thickening in the cheek
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth
  • A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulties in chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving the tongue or jaw
  • A color change of the oral tissues

Who is at Risk for Oral Cancer?

Close to 37,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. It will cause over 8,000 deaths, killing roughly one person per hour, 24 hours a day. Of those newly diagnosed individuals, only slightly more than half will be alive in five years (around 57%).

Gender – Oral cancers or cancer of the mouth are about twice as common in men than women. This is because men are more likely to use tobacco and alcohol over long periods of time and in large enough quantities to cause these cancers.

Age – The likelihood of developing oral cancer increases with age, especially after age 35. Half of all oral cancers are diagnosed in people older than 62.

Tobacco and Alcohol – About 80% of patients with oral cancers use tobacco. The risk of developing these cancers increases with the amount smoked or chewed and the duration of the habit.

  • About 70% of al patients with oral cancers drink alcohol frequently. These cancers are much more common in drinkers than non-drinkers.
  • The combination of smoking and drinking heavily raises a person’s risk much more than either by itself.

Sun Exposure – Many patients with cancers of the lip have outdoor jobs associated with prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Diet – A diet low in fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of developing this cancer.

HPV Infection – According to a recent article in Time (October 5, 2011), the number of head and neck cancers linked to the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV) has increased sharply over the past two decades. This virus may account for more cancers than tobacco or alcohol, a new study finds. Overall, the risk was greatest and rising in men. HPV is best known as the virus that causes cervical cancer in women, but because of better screening, the rate of such cancers has declined. The good news is that patients with HPV-positive oral cancers have better survival rates than those with cancer due to other causes, possibly because their tumors have less genetic damage, which makes them more responsive to treatment.

Bottom Line – Early Detection 

One of the real dangers of this cancer is that, in its early stages, it can go unnoticed. It can be painless, and few physical changes may be obvious. The good news is that your dentist or doctor can, in many cases, see or feel the tissue changes, or the actual cancer of the mouth while it is still very small, or in its earliest stages. It may appear as a white or reed patch, or a small ulcer similar to a canker sore. Because so many benign changes occur in the mouth, it is important to have any sore or discolored area of your mouth, which does not heal in 14 days, looked at by a professional. Other symptoms include: a lump or mass which can be felt inside the mouth or neck, pain or difficulty swallowing, speaking, or chewing, any wart-like masses, hoarseness which lasts for a long time, or any numbness.

The only way to know for sure is to do a biopsy of the site. This procedure is not painful or expensive, and takes little time. It is important to have a diagnosis as early as possible, and your medical doctor or dentist may refer you to a specialist to have the biopsy performed.

Conclusion and Prevention

Most oral cancers could be prevented if people did not use tobacco or drink heavily. Quitting tobacco and limiting alcohol use sharply reduces any risk of developing oral cancer, even after years of use. Many oral cancers may be found early by a combination of routine screening exams by a doctor or dentist or by self-examination.


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