Five Facts About Oral Cancer

Oral cancer and related words written on white board

Oral cancer is cancer that begins in the oral cavity, and it belongs in the category of head and neck cancers.  Raising awareness of oral cancer is vitally important in the fight against it, as you will see in the descriptions of the five facts we highlight in this blog.

Oral cancer is the most important reason to see a dentist for a routine dental examination at least once every year!

Oral cancer kills approximately one person every hour of every day in the U.S.

Despite this fact, oral cancer is actually not very deadly.  The reason for such a high death rate is not because oral cancer is extremely difficult to detect and diagnose.  The reason for such a high death rate is that patients and doctors do not detect it until it is relatively late in development.  In many cases, oral cancer remains undetected until it has spread to another location in the body.

Fact #2 explains why it can go undetected for so long.

In its early stages, oral cancer causes no pain or other symptoms.

Oral cancer most often begins as a small ulcer or even a painless change in the surface tissue inside the mouth.  This is why “waiting until it hurts” is a terrible philosophy to have regarding dental visits.  Dentists perform an oral cancer screening as a part of your dental evaluations (check-ups), and they specifically search for any of these early signs.

Early detection is the key to beating oral cancer.  Everyone should perform a self-screening on a monthly basis and have a professional oral cancer screening at least once a year by his or her dentist.  Catching any oral cancer lesions in their earliest stages greatly improves your long term survival rate!

Some forms of oral cancer are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

Oral cancer is changing.  Traditionally, we never worried about oral cancer on anyone under the age of forty years.  Now, however, it affects more younger people than ever before.  Why?  One virus: HPV.  The same virus that causes cervical cancer in women is causing a new and different type of oral cancer.

In recent years, scientists tracked a change in the demographics of oral cancer patients, noting younger patients with no history of alcohol or tobacco use.  These patients also had oral cancer in areas of the mouth that were different from the stereotypical sites of oral cancer lesions.  These newer types of oral cancer have all been linked to the presence of HPV.  They typically occur on the back of the tongue, the tonsils, and the opening between the mouth and throat (oropharynx).

It is extremely important to understand that not everyone infected with HPV will develop oral cancer.  In fact, only about 1% of people with a high-risk type oral HPV infection ever turn into cancer.

Other forms of oral cancer are caused by heavy alcohol and tobacco use.

Man smoking cigarette
Smoking significantly increases your risk of developing oral cancer.

Historically, oral cancer occurred most frequently in white males over the age of 50 with a history of heavy alcohol and/or tobacco use.  Both alcohol and tobacco are separate risk factors for oral cancer, and when used together, the risk is exponential.  Tobacco of all kinds increases the risk for oral cancer, not just smokeless tobacco that is held in the mouth for long periods of time.  Of course, dipping snuff and chewing tobacco can cause oral cancer, but cigarette smoking is just as dangerous.

Oral cancer associated with tobacco and alcohol use typically occurs on the floor of the mouth, the sides of the tongue, and the underside of the tongue.  When caught early, this type of oral cancer has a high survival rate!

Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.

The tissue lining the inside of the mouth is very similar to skin, and irritants affect it, causing the same types of cancer as those occurring on skin.  Over 90% of oral cancers are squamous cell carcinoma.  The surface tissue changes in response to the irritants (whether tobacco, alcohol, HPV, or sun exposure), the changes can stimulate reproduction of bad, cancer-causing cells.  In order to prevent oral cancer, you must remove those irritants.

Oral cancer screening question
Talk to us during your next exam to see whether you are at risk of developing oral cancer.

Oral cancer is very common on the lower lip among people who work outdoors!  Sun exposure is dangerous to the tissue of the lips, just as it is for our skin.  To lower the risk for this, make sure to always wear chapstick containing an SPF of 15 or higher when outdoors!

For more information on oral cancer, visit the Oral Cancer Foundation.

If it has been more than a year since your last dental visit, schedule one today and make sure to ask about an oral cancer screening.  Often the dentist and dental hygienist perform them without any verbal communication, so you might need to specifically ask for the results.  In general, no news is good news!

More Questions about Oral Cancer?

Call today to schedule a consultation and oral cancer screening with our doctors.  They can answer any oral cancer question you have and discuss your specific level of risk with you.