Oral Cancer: Everything You Need to Know

A Primer On Oral Cancer

The World Cancer Research Fund Institute (WCRF) lists lip and oral cavity cancer as the 15th most common cancer in the world in 2012. It is the 11th most common cancer in men, and the 17th most common cancer in women.

The National Cancer Institute (NIH)’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER) adds that 49,670 cases of oral cavity and pharynx cancer are expected to be diagnosed in 2017, accounting for 2.9% of all new cancer cases in the country. On the other hand, it is expected that 9,700 Americans would die from the disease, accounting for 1.6& of all cancer deaths this year. According to the same source, 346,902 people were living with the cancer in 2014. It has a 64.5% 5-year survival rate, as of 2013. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “mortality from oral cancer is nearly twice as high in some minorities (especially black males) as it is in whites.” That’s not to say that Caucasians are exempt from developing oral cancer, however. Here’s everything you need to know about the disease.

Defining oral cancer

The National Cancer Institute describes cancer as “the name given to a collection of related diseases. In all types of cancer, some of the body’s cells begin to divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues.”

The body is comprised of trillions of cells that grow and divide as the body needs them. Traditionally, the cells die when they grow old and are damaged, and new cells are then grown to replace them. When it comes to people with cancer however, the cells would grow and divide even when they are not needed. Old and damaged cells continue to survive even though they are not functioning as they should. Then, all these extra cells form growths that are referred to as tumors. These tumors can then spread into nearby tissues; in many cases, the cells break off and enter the blood stream or the lymphatic system to form new tumors in other parts of the body.

Oral cancer typically manifests on the cheeks, lips, mouth, tongue, sinuses, pharynx, and the hard and soft palate. The good news though is that over half of people diagnosed with oral cancer were able to combat the disease. As with other cases of cancer, early diagnosis and treatment often goes hand-in-hand with favorable survival rates.


Oral cancer typically appears as a sore or growth in the mouth that does not go away. It usually manifests as a sign of a more serious disease, such as HIV. Other symptoms of the disease includes:

  • Mouth ulcers or sores that do not heal for over two weeks
  • Red or red and white patches on the lining of the tongue and mouth
  • Swelling or bumps, crusts, or eroded areas in the mouth or gum that last for over three weeks
  • A lump on the lining of or inside of the mouth
  • Difficulty in swallowing or chewing, experiencing jaw pain or stiffness, experiences pain when moving the tongue
  • A hoarse voice, oftentimes accompanied by a chronic sore throat
  • A feeling that something is stuck in the back of the throat
  • A sudden change in how your dentures fit or having loose teeth
  • Chronic pain in the neck or ear

While experiencing these symptoms are not a guarantee that a person has oral cancer, they are worth checking out with your dentist if you display the symptoms.


During a routine dental checkup, your dentist can screen you for oral cancer by checking for lumps or irregular tissue in your oral cavity, face, head, and neck. Your dentist would also look for discolored tissues and suspicious sores. If suspicious areas exist, then your dentist may biopsy the area to determine if it is cancerous or not. There are several kinds of biopsies and your dentist can explain to you which one would work for your condition.

On the other hand, you can conduct a routine self-exam to ensure that there are no malicious growths in your mouth. Using a bright light and mirror, gently examine your mouth and lips. Check the lining of your cheeks, gums, and the roof of your mouth. Stick out your tongue and look at all the sides. Feel for enlarged lumps or lymph nodes on your neck or under your jaw. If you feel anything suspicious, inform your dentist immediately so that they can assess the area further.


Treatment for oral cancer varies depending on its stage and location. Your general health and personal preferences also come into play, should you want a conservative treatment or not. Whatever the case, it is treated the same way other cancers are treated: commonly with surgery to remove the cancerous growths, followed by radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy to get rid of the remaining cancer cells.

Since oral cancer can also spread to the lymph nodes in the neck as well as along the jaw or the tongue, sometimes patients would also have to consider reconstructive surgery. This is necessary particularly when it hampers the patient’s ability to talk or eat, or if the surgery significantly altered the appearance of the face.


Having a family history of cancer means that you are more at risk of getting it than other individuals. That being said, remember to practice a healthy lifestyle to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Other prevention methods include:

  • Quitting smoking and excessive drinking – smokers and binge drinkers are six times more likely to get oral cancer than non-smokers and moderate alcohol drinkers.
  • Protecting your lips and minimizing sun exposure
  • Eating a balanced diet – this means avoiding proceed meats, junk foods, and saturated fat. Indulge in fruits and vegetables, and eat meals that used olive oil, whole grains, and lean protein.
  • Conducting frequent self-exams
  • Exercising regularly

Lastly, the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common kind of sexually transmitted disease in the country, also contributes as a risk factor for oral cancers. We will tackle this more in another blog.

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