Are You At Risk for Oral Cancer?

November 10, 2014

You are undoubtedly familiar with breast cancer and lung cancer and prostate cancer, which tend to get more coverage than other diseases because of their high incidence rate or high mortality rate. However, how much do you know about a disease that kills one person every day and that is often not detected until it has moved into the later stages?


That disease is oral cancer, and it’s a serious problem in the United States. More than 43,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, and about 43 percent will die from it within five years of diagnosis. This is an unusually high death rate.

The problem is not that oral cancer is particularly hard to treat or that it’s particularly hard to diagnose. The problem is that it often is diagnosed in very late stages, at which point treatment is not as effective. Frequently the cancer has spread to other parts of the body by the time it has been detected. Because of this, the oral cancer survival rate is somewhat low. All cancers have an average five-year survival rate of 66 percent among those who have been diagnosed. For oral cancer, that rate is 57 percent.

The best way to combat oral cancer, then, is to be proactive by keeping a vigilant watch for symptoms, getting regular screenings for oral cancer by your dentist, and staying abreast of the best treatment methods.
At AZ Family Dental, we want to help protect you and your family from this serious disease. We’ve compiled a primer on oral cancer to help our patients from greater Phoenix, Arizona learn what to look out for and what precautions to take to avoid the disease. Read on to find out:

  • The symptoms of oral cancer
  • The top causes of oral cancer
  • How can oral cancer be diagnosed
  • How can oral cancer be treated
  • How can oral cancer spread

Plus, learn the basic facts about oral cancer and what you can do to help your family prevent oral cancer development.

Oral Cancer: What is It?

Oral cancer types include any cancer that develops in your mouth. This may mean the throat (pharynx), cheeks, tongue, hard and soft palates, floor of the mouth, or lips. It most often presents as a sore in the mouth that will not go away. Many people mistake it for a cold sore and do not get the wound checked out. This leads to later detection of the disease. The majority of oral cancer is classified as squamous cell carcinoma, which attacks epithelial cells.

Men are most at risk of developing oral cancer, and they run twice the risk as women do of getting it. That may be because many of the top causes of oral cancer, such as smoking, are more widely practiced by men than women. Agewise, people who are middle-aged and older are most likely to develop the disease.


Oral cancer kills more than 8,000 people every year. Some 43,000 are newly diagnosed each year, but many others go into remission only to have the cancer resurface a few years later. The oral cancer survival rate is 57 percent, and this has actually improved over the past decade as people become more vigilant about getting screened. Previously the mortality rate for oral cancer was 50 percent.

An increasing number of oral cancer cases are being caused by HPV16, a form of human papilloma virus that effects the mucus membranes and skin. It tends to affect the back of the mouth, including the oropharynx, the tonsils, and the base of the tongue.

Unfortunately, since they are in the back of the mouth, the discoloration and lesions that often signal the presence of oral cancer can be more easily overlooked by patients. They may not know that their mouth has undergone any chance and thus will not ask their dentist for a screening.

Oral cancer has a high risk of recurring for the first 10 years after diagnosis. Patients are up to 20 times as likely to get cancer again as those who have not been diagnosed with oral cancer.

How Does Oral Cancer Develop?

Like many cancers, oral cancer is tied to a slew of risk factors. While not everyone who develops oral cancer indulges in these high-risk activities, a vast majority do.

Oral cancer risk factors include:
Smoking and drinking excessively
Breathing in irritants in smoggy or badly ventilated areas
Herpes infections
Bad oral hygiene
Working outside without proper protection
Gum disease

All of these top causes of oral cancer put your mouth, tongue, and throat in danger. Toxic substances coming in contact with these body parts put them at greater risk, and sores or discoloration may develop.

Another oral cancer risk factor is poor nutrition. A diet that is low in vegetables and fruit also can result in the development of oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Symptoms

There are many symptoms of oral cancer, and they begin to show almost immediately. Unfortunately, many of these symptoms can also be explained away by other causes, such as cold sores, allergies, or overaggressive tooth brushing. That is why it can be easy for a case of oral cancer to go undiagnosed. Little pain is associated with most symptoms, and many times patients do not even think to alert their dentist they have these symptoms.

These are the most common oral cancer symptoms:
Sores that appear on the face, in the mouth, or on the neck, usually sticking around for at least two weeks without any sign of healing
Numbness in the mouth, neck, or face
Unexplained pain in the mouth, neck, or face
Sore throat
A hoarse voice or one that changes timber
Pain in the ears
Sudden unexplained weight loss
Frequent bleeding in the mouth for no apparent reason
White, red, or white and red patches in the mouth
Crusty spots on the lips or gums
Swollen lips or gums

If you develop any of these oral cancer warning signs, it is important to get them checked out by a dentist immediately, especially if you indulge in any of the oral cancer causes detailed in the next section.

Top Causes of Oral Cancer

As we mentioned above, there are often very specific causes of oral cancer. Tobacco usage and alcohol abuse are the most common oral cancer causes. Research has found the likelihood of developing oral cancer increases by sixfold when you smoke, and your risk of developing cancer increases with every year you continue smoking or chewing tobacco. The volume of tobacco also plays into your risks; the greater the amount of tobacco you use, the higher your risk of developing the disease.

Chewing tobacco and snuff are also among the top causes of oral cancer. Those who use them have an increased risk of cancer of the inner lips, cheeks, or gums. Smoking a pipe ups your risk of developing lip cancer.
While we frequently associate smoking with cancer, alcohol can also be a contributing factor to developing oral cancer. People who consume alcohol are six times as likely to get oral cancer as those who abstain, and that risk goes up the more you drink. About three-quarters of those diagnosed with oral cancer drink alcohol.

Sun exposure causes many types of cancer, including oral cancer. Many people slather sunscreen on other parts of their body but forget about their lips. They can develop cancer there, too. It is important to use lip balm with sunscreen if you work outside or spend a lot of time outdoors to protect your mouth.

How Can Oral Cancer Be Diagnosed?

A dentist will throw up a red flag at an oral cancer screening if he or she finds something suspicious. After that, a patient will be tested to confirm the initial diagnosis. The dentist will take a medical history of the patient and perform a physical examination.

Oral cancer detection methods may also include:
CT scan
Magnetic resonance imaging scan
Position emission tomography

Once the oral cancer detection has been made, it is time to move on to treatment.

How Can Oral Cancer Be Treated?

Just as there are multiple oral cancer detection methods, there are also several ways oral cancer can be treated. The three most common oral cancer treatment options are:

1. Surgery: Surgical removal of the tumor and perhaps surrounding lymph nodes if the tumor has grown into them. This procedure works only for larger tumors.

2. Chemotherapy: Potent cancer-zapping drugs are used to shrink and eliminate the tumor and surrounding cells. Sometimes doctors employ chemo before surgery in order to reduce the size of a tumor.

3. Radiation: Ionising radiation is used to target and destroy cancer cells. This is the preferred method of treatment for small tumors.

There are side effects for many of these treatments. They may include tooth loss, scarring, infections, damage to the salivary glands, dry mouth, tooth decay, and the need for a prosthetic device if bone from the jaw is removed. Chemotherapy and radiation can also result in severe nausea, which is true for any cancer treatment.

How Can Oral Cancer Spread?

Oral cancer can spread in several ways, frequently through the lymph nodes when the cancer metastasizes and begins moving to other parts of the body. The cancer often latches onto the lymph nodes in the neck. It is not uncommon for the cancer to spread to the lungs, too. In this case it remains a case of oral cancer, with the cells retaining the characteristics of oral cancer cells. It is not called lung cancer but rather metastic oral cancer.

Cancer may also spread elsewhere in the head and neck if a smoker continues with his or her tobacco habit after diagnosis. The No. 1 most important thing a smoker can do to avoid spreading oral cancer is to stop smoking. A side benefit is that this also reduces the chance of developing other cancers, such as lung and pancreas.


Is Oral Cancer Fatal?

Oral cancer can be cured, but not in every case. Roughly 43 percent of all oral cancer patients die, many of them during their second or third bout with the disease. The late detection of oral cancer has pushed down the oral cancer survival rate.

However, an oral cancer diagnosis does not have to be a death sentence. When it is caught early, chances of recovery are very good. Eliminating risk factors, such as prolonged time in the sun, a poor diet, using tobacco products, and drinking alcohol, can help lower the chances of a recurrence.

Still, it’s those recurrences that can be the most deadly. The one-year oral cancer survival rate is 81 percent, but the 10-year rate is just 41 percent.

How Can Oral Cancer Be Prevented?

There are many ways you can guard against oral cancer. The most obvious is not smoking. That is the single best way to prevent oral cancer. However, there are also other ways to decrease your chances of an oral cancer diagnosis:

  • Eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruit and low in high-fat protein
  • Get regular oral cancer screenings at your dentist
  • Stay updated on oral cancer information and developments
  • Get screened for HPV
  • Monitor other risk factors for oral cancer, such as a weakened immune system or hereditary conditions such as fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenital

Frequently Asked Questions About Oral Cancer

Now let’s touch on the most frequently asked questions about oral cancer treatment cost, causes, and symptoms.

Q: Is oral cancer contagious?

No. Although cold sores and HPV, which helps spread the disease, are contagious and often share the same symptoms with oral cancer, it is not contagious.

Q: Is oral cancer hereditary?

Oral cancer can be hereditary. Though the main risk factors are behavioral, such as using tobacco products, people can also inherit conditions that put them at high risk of developing oral cancer, including fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita.

Q: Is oral cancer screening necessary if I don’t drink or smoke?

Yes. While the vast majority of cases are tied to tobacco or alcohol, roughly a quarter of those who develop oral cancer have never smoked and are not heavy drinkers. You should get an oral cancer test every time you visit your doctor.

Q: How much does oral cancer treatment cost?

It depends upon your health care plan and what type of treatment you and your doctor agree upon. You may be looking at a significant bill if you have a high-deductible plan. Expenses may include:

  • Lab tests
  • Imaging testsv
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Home care
  • Clinical follow-ups

You should ask your doctor for some guidance on how much oral cancer treatment costs as well. While he or she may not be able to give you an exact dollar figure, just getting a ballpark will help you get your finances in order.

Q: Can I get oral cancer from mouthwash?

No. For years there was a belief that frequent use of mouthwash resulted in a higher risk for oral cancer, with studies seeming to back this up. However, researchers have concluded that people who use tobacco also use mouthwash more frequently, and since they are at a higher risk for oral cancer, that was being misinterpreted as mouthwash causing oral cancer. Though mouthwash does have some alcohol, it is not a cause of oral cancer.

Can I get oral cancer from dentures?

No. This is also a myth, likely tied to the fact that smokers wearing ill-fitting dentures can trap tobacco particles in their faux teeth, which can increase risk of oral cancer. Just wearing dentures does not increase your risk.

The Best Oral Cancer Screening

Oral cancer is a deadly disease, but when caught early and treated properly, it can be cured. Remember to limit your risk factors, monitor any new sores or sudden bleeding in your mouth, and above all get an oral cancer screening regularly at AZ Family Dental in Glendale, Arizona.

This can help keep you, and your mouth, stay healthy.

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