Chewing Tobacco

How common and how serious is oral cancer?

Oral cancer, the sixth most common cancer, accounts for about 3.6 percent of all cancers diagnosed, with roughly 40,000 new cases reported annually in the United States. The vast majority of these cases occur in people older than 45 years, with men being twice as likely as women to develop the disease.

The most frequent oral cancer sites are the tongue, the floor of the mouth, and soft palate tissue areas in back of the tongue, lips, and gums. If not diagnosed and treated in its early stages, the cancer can spread, leading to chronic pain, loss of function, irreparable facial and oral disfigurement following surgery, and even death. All general dentists can perform a thorough screening for oral cancer.

What causes oral cancer?

Scientists aren’t sure of the exact cause of the disease. However, the carcinogens in tobacco products, alcohol and certain foods, as well as excessive exposure to the sun have been found to increase the risk of developing oral cancer. Risk factors may also be genetically inherited.

What are the warning signs to watch out for?

Oral cancer–represented by red, white or discolored lesions, patches or lumps in or around the mouth–is typically painless in its early stages. As the malignant cancer spreads and destroys healthy oral tissue, the lesions or lumps become more painful. However, oral cancer is sometimes difficult to self-diagnose so routine dental exams are recommended.

See a dentist immediately if you observe: any sore that persists longer than two weeks; a swelling, growth or lump anywhere in or about the mouth or neck; white or red patches in the mouth or on the lips; repeated bleeding from the mouth or throat; difficulty swallowing or persistent hoarseness.

How does a dentist screen for oral cancer?

We screen for oral cancer during routine checkups by feeling for lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, cheeks and oral cavity. There is also a thorough examination of the soft tissues in your mouth, specifically looking for any sores or discolored tissues.

How is it treated?

If oral cancer is suspected, a biopsy of the lesion is required to confirm the diagnosis. Surgery is required to remove the tumors, which may cause disfiguration. Radiation therapy may be used as part of the treatment.

How can I prevent it?

Oral cancer accounts for roughly 9,000 deaths annually (about 3 percent of all cancer-caused deaths). Of all major cancers, it has the worst five-year survival rate at about 54 percent. Because oral cancer is usually not diagnosed in its early stages, less than half of all oral cancer patients are cured.

You can help prevent oral cancer by not smoking, using spit tobacco or drinking excessive alcohol. When tobacco use and alcohol use are combined, the risk increases 15 times more than non-users of tobacco and alcohol products. Research suggests that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables may safeguard against oral cancer. Because successful treatment and rehabilitation are dependent on early detection, it is extremely important to see your dentist for an oral cancer screening and regular checkup at least every six months. Survival rates greatly increase the earlier oral cancer is discovered and treated. During your next dental visit, be sure to ask your dentist for an oral cancer screening.