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About Oral Cancer

The term oral cancer includes cancers of the mouth and the pharynx, part of the throat. About two-thirds of oral cancers occur in the mouth and about one-third are found in the pharynx.

Oral cancer will be diagnosed in an estimated 30,000 Americans this year and will cause more than 8,000 deaths. The disease kills approximately one person every hour. Oral cancer is the 6th most common cancer in men and the 14th most common cancer in women.

Oral cancer can spread quickly. On average, only half of those diagnosed with the disease will survive more than five years.

Oral cancer most often occurs in people over the age of 40 and affects twice as many men as women.

Lower Your Risk

Most oral cancer is preventable. 75% of oral cancers are related to tobacco use, alcohol use, or use of both substances together. Using both tobacco and alcohol puts you at much greater risk than using either substance alone.

  • Do not use tobacco products: cigarettes, chew or snuff, pipes or cigars. Tobacco in all forms plays a role in oral cancers.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so only in moderation: Excessive alcohol use can increase your risk of oral cancer.
  • Use lip balm that contains sunscreen: Exposure to sunlight is a risk factor for lip cancer.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables: Eating lots of fruits and vegetables as part of a low-fat, high fiber diet may help reduce cancer risk. The National Cancer Institute suggests eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Possible Signs & Symptoms

See a dentist or physician if any of the following symptoms lasts for more than two weeks.

  • A sore, irritation, lump or thick patch in your mouth, lip, or throat
  • A white or red patch in your mouth
  • Visit the dentist routinely for a check-up and professional cleaning
  • Eat a well balanced diet
  • Don't use tobacco products

How do I know if I have periodontal disease?

Symptoms are often not noticeable until the disease is advanced. They include:

  • Bad breath that won't go away
  • Red or swollen gums
  • A feeling that something is caught in your throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving your jaw or tongue
  • Numbness in your tongue or other areas of your mouth
  • Swelling of your jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Pain in one ear without hearing loss

Early Detection

It is important to find oral cancer as early as possible when it can be treated more successfully. An oral cancer examination can detect early signs of cancer. Oral cancer exams are painless and quick — and take only a few minutes.

Your regular dental check-up is an excellent opportunity to have the exam. During the exam, your dentist or dental hygienist will check your face, neck, lips, and entire mouth. Some parts of the pharynx are not visible during an oral cancer exam. Talk to your dentist about whether a specialist should check your pharynx.

The Oral Cancer Exam

An oral cancer exam is painless and quick — it takes only a few minutes. Your regular dental checkup is an excellent opportunity to have the exam. Here’s what to expect:

  1. Preparing for the exam: If you have dentures (plates) or partials, you will be asked to remove them.
  2. Your health care provider will inspect your face, neck, lips and mouth to look for any signs of cancer.
  3. With both hands, he or she will feel the area under your jaw and the side of your neck, checking for lumps that may suggest cancer.
  4. He or she will then look at and feel the insides of your lips and cheeks to check for possible signs of cancer, such as red and/or white patches.
  5. Next, your provider will have you stick out your tongue so it can be checked for swelling or abnormal color or texture.
  6. Using gauze, he or she will then gently pull your tongue to one side, then the other, to check the base of your tongue. The underside of your tongue will also be checked.
  7. In addition, he or she will look at the roof and floor of your mouth, as well as the back of your throat.
  8. Finally, your provider will put one finger on the floor of your mouth and, with the other hand under your chin, gently press down to check for lumps or sensitivity.

 

Information for this article provided by:

NIDCR (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research)

NIH Publication No. 03-5032
Last Reviewed May 2005

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