What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer

During your regular check-ups, your dentist checks for signs of oral cancer.  Cancer is a condition where your body’s cells do not die as they should.  Instead, they grow rapidly and form tumors.  Because cancer cells grow rapidly, they use large amounts of resources, depriving the rest of your body of nutrients.  Tumors also press on organs and nerves, causing them to function improperly.   Oral cancer is any cancer that originates in the mouth or the back of the mouth/top of the throat.  This includes the lips, gums, salivary glands, teeth, tongue, the lining of your cheeks, hard palate, soft palate, the floor of your mouth, uvula, tonsils, and oropharynx.  Approximately 34% of oral cancers are found in the oropharynx (the upper part of the throat that opens into your nose and mouth).  The other two-thirds of oral cancer cases are found in the mouth itself.


Every year, more than 35,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer, and over 7,000 will die from it.   Men are twice as likely as women to develop oral cancer, and the majority of people who get oral cancer are over the age of 60.  Besides being male and over 60, the other risk factors for oral cancer are sun exposure, tobacco use, alcohol use, HPV infection, chewing betel nuts, and eating an unhealthy diet.  Three out of four people with oral cancer have used tobacco, alcohol, or both.

A woman smoking a cigarette

Oral cancer has several symptoms.  Red or white patches in your mouth; any new lump, thick patch or rough spot in or around your mouth; and a sore that doesn’t heal are all symptoms that warrant immediate dental attention.    Feeling like something is stuck in your throat, problems with swallowing or chewing, and numbness or pain in any area around your mouth are also reasons to seek urgent dental or medical attention.  Finally, if you experience ear pain with no loss of hearing, a swollen jaw; ill-fitting dentures or a change in color of your mouth, notify your doctor or dentist as soon as possible.  These symptoms can apply to many conditions, not just oral cancer.  Your dentist will be able to tell you if there is any reason for concern.

During the exam, your dentist will check any red or white patches, or unhealing sores, by using a brush to sample the cells, then examining them under a microscope.  If you have found a new lump, your dentist will remove a small piece of it to be examined under a microscope.  This procedure is called a biopsy.

Most exams, biopsies, and brushings indicate a benign condition.  A benign condition is one that does not grow quickly and does not spread.  Benign tumors can be surgically removed very easily, and no further treatment is required.  If your biopsy or brushing does indicate oral cancer, it’s important to begin treatment as soon as possible.  The earlier cancer is treated, the better the outcome is.

The next step is to determine if oral cancer has spread to other parts of your body (metastasis).  You will probably be sent for imaging procedures such as MRI, CT, or PET scans.  Your dentist and doctor will work together with an Oncologist (cancer specialist), an Oral Surgeon, or an Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialist to determine the best course of treatment for your situation.

Regular dental exams are essential in providing oral cancer screening and early detection.  Early cancer treatment is the best chance for a successful recovery.