Did you know that oral cancer accounts for roughly 3% of all cancers in the United States? On average, one American dies every hour from oral cancer. The most common risk factors are tobacco usage, frequent and high quantity alcohol consumption, betel quid chewing, prolonged sunlight exposure, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
What is oral cancer?
Oral cancer describes any cancer that develops in the tissues of the mouth (oral cavity) or in the throat area (oropharynx). It includes cancer of the lip, tongue, salivary glands, cheek lining, area beneath the tongue (floor of the mouth), roof of the mouth (hard palate), area behind the roof of the mouth (soft palate), uvula, and tonsils.
The vast majority of oral cancers (over 90%) are called squamous cell carcinomas and begin in the cells (squamous cells) that line the mouth, tongue, and lips. As it grows, the cancer can spread to nearby tissues and reach distant organs (lungs and liver) by entering blood vessels or lymph nodes. The process of cancer spreading to distant sites is called metastasis. Commonly, cancer cells will first appear in the lymph nodes in the neck.
What are the signs and symptoms of oral cancer?
There are several common signs and symptoms that may indicate an oral cancer. These include:
- mouth sores that do not heal
- persistent pain around the teeth or jaw
- a red and/or white patch on the gums, tongue, or tissues of the mouth
- difficulty swallowing, speaking, or chewing
- a lump in the neck or throat
- loose teeth for no apparent reason
- numbness, pain or tenderness in your mouth
- weight loss
How do you screen for oral cancer?
A thorough oral cancer screening is an integral part of our routine dental examinations. It is quick and painless and includes a visual and tactile evaluation of your lips, tongue, cheeks, throat, lymph nodes, and head and neck. In particular, we are looking for any sores, tissue discolorations, or lumps. If we notice any suspicious areas, we will likely refer you to an oral surgeon for a biopsy. The biopsy will be sent to a laboratory for interpretation and a follow up appointment will be completed.