National Oral Cancer Month: Signs and Prevention

dentist in purple gloves performing treatment on patient
dentist in purple gloves performing treatment on patient

One cancer that is certainly on the radar in America, but still unknown to many, is oral cancer. This cancer of the mouth is currently the 11th most common cancer in the world. In 2012, there were about 300,000 new cases worldwide, leading to as many as 145,000 deaths. This April National Oral Cancer Month works toward prevention through education and awareness.

Types of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer can occur on just about all tissues in the mouth. This includes the lips, cheeks, tongue, hard and soft palate, the sinuses, the floor of your mouth, and in your throat. If it is caught early, it can be treated and often successfully removed. If not found early, cancer can begin to spread and, in many instances, prove fatal.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

There are a number of symptoms that you might experience if you get oral cancer. These may include:

  • A sore throat or change in your voice
  • A sore that does not heal
  • A growth or lump in the lining of your mouth
  • Pain in your tongue
  • Pain when chewing
  • Difficulty swallowing – possibly with pain
  • A bleeding sore in your mouth, face or neck
  • Pain in your jaw
  • Teeth becoming loose
  • Dentures no longer fitting

With this type of cancer, symptoms may not appear until it is often already in the late stages of the disease. Red or white patches in the mouth will sometimes be evident at an early stage. Some late-stage symptoms include:

  • A chronic earache
  • Obstruction of the airway
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Numbness in the cancer area
  • Pain in the neck
  • Change in your vision.

Risk Factors

As is true with many cancers, it is believed that the use of tobacco and alcohol are the highest risk factors. When both are used, it multiplies the risk. Smokeless tobacco can also cause oral cancer, and if you dip and smoke cigarettes, the risk is even higher. These two factors cause as much as 90 percent of all oral cancers. While oral screening is not normally recommended for young people, it is recommended for those who drink and use tobacco heavily at age 30.


Being a male is also a risk factor. Men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer as women. Other risk factors include a weak immune system, being exposed to an STD called human papillomavirus (HPV), and heavy exposure of your lips to the sun. It is most common in people over 62, but anyone can develop it. In about 20 percent of the cases, there are no known risk factors involved.

The Importance of Screening

Screening for oral cancers is often performed by your dentist. Because they know the signs to look for, they are likely to be the first ones to spot it. This is a good reason to see your dentist more often. Spotting it early can enable treatment to get started before it spreads very far. Although survival rates have been improved over the past couple of decades, only about 65 percent of people with it will live beyond five years.

When screening is used to detect oral cancer, catching the disease in its earlier stages has increased the survival rates. People over 20 should get a cancer screening about every three years. Those over 40 should get one every year.

Cancer Diagnosis

Once a cancer of the mouth is suspected, the patient will likely need to have a biopsy. This will be performed by scraping or collecting some tissue in the mouth, and then sending it to a lab for analysis.

After there has been a diagnosis of cancer, it will be necessary to determine how far the cancer has spread. A camera is going to be used to check your throat and voice box, and you will likely need to have some imaging scans, including x-rays, CT and possibly an MRI. A PET scan may also be necessary.

Treatment of Oral Cancer

The treatment for oral cancers will vary. There are many types of cancer of the mouth, and the treatment will depend on what type and how far it has spread. The three types of treatment include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.


Surgery will be used to remove the cancer. This may involve the removal of small amounts of tissue, or it could require cutting away part of your tongue, or jaw. Lymph nodes in your neck may also need to be removed – called neck dissection.

Oral Cancer Prevention

At the present time, there is no known way to prevent this kind of cancer, but you can avoid the known risk factors as much as possible. This includes using as little tobacco or alcohol as possible – avoiding it completely is better. If you smoke, cutting down on tobacco use can also lower your risk.

Eating more fruits and vegetables is another important step to avoiding cancer. Most Americans do not eat enough, and eating more balanced and healthy meals helps reduce your cancer risk – for many types of cancers. Focus on foods with vitamin C and lots of antioxidants. Staying out of the sun will also help to protect your lips. You can do this by wearing a hat with a broad brim, and by wearing a sunscreen for your lips.

Visit a Dentist

When you see your dentist, ask them to check for oral cancer. They do not always perform this task unless you ask them to. You also want to ask them about gum disease, teeth cleaning, and oral hygiene.

You can also ask for a screening when you go for a teeth cleaning appointment. Be sure to mention any mouth sores that you might have, because it may be the beginning of cancer.

Special Dental Appointments

If you have signs that you think might be cancer, such as mouth sores or other symptoms that last more than two weeks, you need to make an appointment with your dentist. It is certainly better to be safe than sorry. If it is oral cancer, remember that the sooner that treatment can get started, the better.

Dental Reconstruction

If you have had oral cancer treatment and need your mouth and teeth to be reconstructed, Drs. David and Michael Rothan have experience providing functional, cosmetic solutions since 1986.

Equally important, they are committed to helping prevent oral cancer in the first place. To do this, they promote oral hygiene, treat gum disease, perform oral cancer screenings, and treat mouth sores, as well as provide many other dental services. If you live in or near the Cincinnati, OH area, we invite you to visit Twin Dental for a screening during National Oral Cancer Month.

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