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Oral Cancer

Oral Cancer

What is Oral Cancer?

The term oral cancer includes cancers of the mouth, lips and the pharynx (the back of the throat). Approximately 35,000 new cases of oral cancer are expected in the United States each year.

Oral cancer can spread quickly. On average, more than 50 percent of those with oral cancer will not survive more than five years.

What causes Oral Cancer?

Some of the things that put people at risk for oral cancer include:

  • Tobacco and alcohol use. Most cases of oral cancer are linked to cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol use, or the use of both tobacco and alcohol together. Using tobacco plus alcohol poses a much greater risk than using either substance alone.
  • HPV. Infection with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (specifically the HPV 16 type) has been linked to a subset of oral cancers.
  • Age. Risk increases with age. Oral cancer most often occurs in people over the age of 40.
  • Sun exposure. Cancer of the lip can be caused by sun exposure.
  • Diet. A diet low in fruits and vegetables may play a role in oral cancer development.

How does Oral Cancer affect me?

Here are some symptoms of Oral Cancer:

  • A sore, irritation, lump or thick patch in the mouth, lip, or throat
  • A white or red patch in the mouth
  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness in the tongue or other areas of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Pain in one ear without hearing loss

A person who has any of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks should see a dentist or doctor for an oral cancer exam. Most often, symptoms like those listed above do not mean cancer. An infection or another problem can cause the same symptoms. But it's important to have the symptoms checked out-because if it is cancer, it can be treated more successfully if it's caught early.

What can I do about Oral Cancer?

It is important to find oral cancer as early as possible when it can be treated 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 or physical examination is an excellent opportunity to have the examination. During the examination, your health-care provider will check your face, neck, lips and entire mouth for possible signs of cancer.

Some parts of the pharynx or back of the throat are not visible during an oral cancer exam, and you may be referred to a specialist.

You can help to prevent oral cancer. Most oral cancer is preventable. Early detection is important!

  • Have an oral cancer examination once a year. Ask your dentist or doctor for an oral cancer exam during your visit.
  • 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 with an SPF of 15 to 30 and reapply every two hours while in the sun. Exposure to sunlight is a risk factor for lip cancer.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day as part of a low-fat, high-fiber diet may help reduce your cancer risk.

Do you need help quitting tobacco?

NDQuits offers free assistance to help people quit using tobacco products. Call 1.800.QUIT.NOW for free coaching, online support, and tobacco cessation products to help you quit.

Information sources:

National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

North Dakota Department of Health