Approximately 40,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer annually, and nearly 60 percent will be alive five years later. These startling statistics from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention tell a warning tale, but there is some good news, too. If caught early, oral cancer is highly treatable.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, the high death rate of oral cancer is due to its usually being discovered late in its development. That means that prevention and early diagnosis can make a huge difference.
What are the warning signs of oral cancer?
Oral cancer can develop in the lips, gums, and tongue, as well as the lining of the cheeks and the floor and roof of the mouth. Call your dentist or doctor right away if you notice any of the following:
- White, red, or mixed red and white spots (or patches) on your tongue, gums, or any other tissues in your mouth.
- A sore or irritation in the mouth that bleeds easily and doesn't heal.
- Bleeding in the mouth.
- Persistent tenderness, pain, or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips.
- A lump or thickening in the cheek or neck.
- A thick, rough, or crusty spot, or a small area that looks like it's wearing away anywhere in the mouth.
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, talking, or moving your jaw or tongue.
- A change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite down.
- A change in your voice that isn't due to a cold or allergies.
- An earache that doesn't go away.
- Numbness of the lower lip and chin.
What can I do to help prevent oral cancer?
The best thing you can do to protect yourself from oral cancer is to avoid tobacco in all forms -- -- it's to blame for 90 percent of all oral cancers. Whether you use cigarettes, pipes, cigars, "herbal" cigarettes, snuff, or chewing tobacco, you're at increased risk.
If you smoke and drink a lot of alcohol, your risk jumps even higher. Heavy alcohol use by itself increases the risk of oral cancer, but when paired with smoking it packs a double whammy. If you stop smoking and cut way back on your alcohol consumption, you've greatly reduced your risk of oral cancer.
Cancer of the lips can result from too much sun exposure. If you're going to be out in the sun, use a lip balm with sunscreen and wear a hat. The risk of lip cancer increases with -- you guessed it -- smoking.
Some types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) can infect the mouth and throat. These viruses are passed through sexual contact. HPV infection is linked to cancer at the base of the tongue, the back of the throat, in the tonsils, and in the soft palate.
Though it is not common in this country, chewing betel nuts can cause oral cancer. Betel nuts are a type of palm seed that is wrapped with a betel leaf and sometimes mixed with spices, sweeteners, and tobacco. Chewing them is most common in Asia. The risk of oral cancer from betel nuts is increased with alcohol and tobacco use.
Finally, one of the best things you can do to prevent oral cancer is to visit your dentist regularly. She'll spot any suspicious skin changes in your mouth before they become a problem. Eating a balanced diet is important as well. Some studies say your risk of developing oral cancer increases if your daily meal plan doesn't include plenty of fruit and vegetables.
Oral cancer isn't common, but it is serious. Arm yourself with the warning signs, have regular checkups, avoid tobacco and other risk factors, and you have an excellent chance of avoiding it altogether.
Oral Cancer/Oral Health Conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/adult_data/cig_smoking/index.htm
Oral Cancer Facts. Oral Cancer Foundation.
Human Papillomaviruses and Cancer: Questions and Answers. National Cancer Institute.
What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer. Risk Factors. National Cancer Institute.
Oral Cancer: Deadly to Ignore. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Fact Sheet.
Screening for Signs of Oral Cancer. American Dental Association Video News Release.
Can Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Be Found Early? American Cancer Society.
What is Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer? American Cancer Society.
National Cancer Institute. Oral Cancer.
Oral Cancer Foundation. The Problem of Death and Disease.
American Cancer Society. Detailed Guide: Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer.