Word of Mouth

Oral Cancer – Risks, symptoms, screening, treatment, and prevention

By David Buice

Oral cancers account for about 3% of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. each year or about 53,000 new cases annually. These cancers can be divided into two categories — those occurring in the oral cavity (your lips, the inside of your lips and cheeks, gums, the front two-thirds of your tongue, and the floor and roof of your mouth) and those found in the oropharynx (the middle region of the throat, including the tonsils and base of the tongue.


Most dentists perform an examination of your mouth during a routine dental visit to screen for oral cancer. Some dentists may use additional tests to aid in identifying any abnormal cells they may see in your mouth.

Early detection may result in better treatment outcomes and may keep you or someone you love from becoming one of the approximately 10,000 Americans who succumb to oral cancer each year.

According to the American Dental Association, the five-year survival rate of those diagnosed with oral cancer is about 60%.

Treatment Options

Different treatments for oral cancer may be used, either alone or in combination, depending on the stage and location of the cancer. Generally, surgery is the first treatment for cancers of the oral cavity and may be followed by radiation or combined chemotherapy and radiation. Oropharyngeal cancers are usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.


The most important preventive measure is to be aware of the risk factors. If you smoke or drink excessively or have a poor diet, changing these habits could decrease the chances of developing oral cancer.   

Risk factors

The most common risk factors for oral cancer include:

Gender // More than twice as many men as women develop oral cancer.

Age // Oral cancer most commonly affects people over the age of 40.

Tobacco and alcohol // Using tobacco in any form puts you at risk for oral cancer, as does the heavy consumption of alcohol. Using both tobacco and alcohol increases your risk even further, especially for
those over 50.

The human papilloma virus (HPV) // This sexually transmitted virus can infect the mouth and throat and cause cancer in the back of the throat, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils. This is called oropharyngeal cancer, and according to the CDC, HPV is thought to cause about 70% of this type of cancer in the U.S.

Sun exposure // Cancer of the lip can be caused by sun exposure.


If you have any of the following for more than two weeks, you should schedule an appointment with your dentist or doctor.

  • A sore, irritation, lump, or thick patch in your mouth, lip, or throat
  • A white or red patch in your mouth
  • A sore throat or feeling that something is caught in your throat
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or speaking
  • Difficulty moving your tongue or jaw
  • Swelling of your jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Numbness in your tongue or other areas of your mouth
  • Ear pain

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