You May Not Know About This, But You Should.

A whopping 62% of Americans know very little or nothing about oral cancer, yet the death rate for this cancer is higher than that of cancers which we hear about routinely, such as cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, laryngeal cancer, cancer of the testes, and endocrine system cancers. A few more facts you may not know (but should):

  • Close to 49,750 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year.
  • It will cause over 9,750 deaths, killing roughly 1 person per hour, 24 hours per day.
  • Of those newly diagnosed individuals, only slightly more than half will be alive in 5 years.
  • If you expand the definition of oral and oropharyngeal cancers to include cancer of the larynx, the numbers of diagnosed cases grow to approximately 54,000 individuals and 13,500 deaths per year in the U.S. alone.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, oral cancers are part of a group of cancers commonly referred to as head and neck cancers, and of all head and neck cancers, they comprise about 85% of that category. (Brain cancer is a cancer category unto itself and is not included in the head and neck cancer group). The death rate associated with this cancer is particularly high, not because it is hard to discover or diagnose, but due to the cancer being routinely discovered late in its development. Another obstacle to early discovery (and resulting better outcomes) is the advent of the virus, HPV16, which contributes more to the incidence rate of oral cancers.*

So here’s what you need to know:

Tobacco use in all of its forms and alcohol are major risk factors for developing oral cancer, and cause the vast majority of oral cancers. But research shows how little US adults know about other risk factors for oral cancer, particularly the connection between oral cancer and oral human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease. HPV can cause cancers in the back of the throat, most commonly in the base of the tongue and tonsils, in an area known as the “oropharynx.” These cancers are called “oropharyngeal cancers.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that up to 70% of oropharyngeal cancers may be associated with HPV.

One of the real dangers of this cancer, is that in its early stages, it can go unnoticed. It can be painless, and little in the way of physical changes may be obvious. The good news though is that your physician or dentist can, in many cases, see or feel the precursor tissue changes, or the actual cancer while it is still very small or in its earliest stages. 

Where Can Oral Cancer Appear?

The oral cavity includes your lips, cheek lining, gums, front part of your tongue, floor of the mouth beneath the tongue and the hard palate that makes up the roof of your mouth. The throat (pharynx) starts at the soft part of the roof of your mouth and continues back into your throat. It includes the back section of your tongue, as well as the base where the tongue attaches to the floor of your mouth.**

What Are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?

It’s important to be aware of the following signs and symptoms and to see your dentist if they do not disappear after two weeks. 

  • A sore or irritation that doesn’t go away
  • Red or white patches
  • Pain, tenderness or numbness in mouth or lips
  • A lump, thickening, rough spot, crust or small eroded area
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue or jaw
  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth

Some people complain of a sore throat, feeling like something is caught in their throat, numbness, hoarseness or a change in voice. If you have any of these symptoms, let your dentist know, especially if you’ve had them for two weeks or more.**

What Happens If I See Something That Concerns Me?

Stomatology is the study of diseases of the mouth. Both Dr. White and Dr. Blansett trained with Dr. Terry Rees at the Stomatology Center at Baylor College of Dentistry. They have extensive experience managing disorders of the mouth that cause ulcers or white patches. They can perform biopsies of these lesions or tissue masses in the mouth and submit them for evaluation by a pathologist. If you have any suspect areas in your oral cavity, don’t put it off: call us to schedule an appointment to rule out any issues. We can work together to create the best strategy for diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

*To learn more about oral cancer and its risk factors, visit the Oral Cancer Foundation website.