Oral cancer accounts for 2.9% of all diagnosed cases of cancer in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society it is estimated that 51,000 people across the country will develop oral cancer this year and that 10,000 fatalities are expected from the disease.
Oral cancer can occur anywhere in the orofacial complex but is most often found on the tongue, the tonsils and oropharynx, the gums, floor of the mouth, lips, cheek lining or the hard palate. While the disease can affect anyone, men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer as women. Those particularly at risk for oral cancer are men over the age of 50 who are heavy smokers and frequently drink alcohol. Additional risk factors may include UV exposure from the sun or sunlamps, GERD (gastro-intestinal reflux disease, prior head and neck radiation treatment, exposure to certain chemicals and poor diet. While the death rate from oral cancer has been decreasing in the past several decades thanks to early detection and advanced methods of treatment improving the outcomes of care, there has been a recent rise in the incidence of oropharyngeal cancer due to increased transmission of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV).
What are some of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer?
As part of a comprehensive exam, the dentist will perform a screening for oral cancer. To start, the dentist will review the patient’s medical and dental histories and ask if there have been any changes to his or her oral health or overall health. The dentist will then carefully check in and around the oral cavity as well as the head and neck area for any of the following signs or symptoms that may indicate the presence of a problem:
- Mouth ulcers or sores that do not heal
- Red or white patches
- Persistent swelling of unknown origin
- Pain when swallowing, a painful tongue or a continuing ear or neck ache
- A constant feeling that something is stuck in the throat
- Tenderness or numbness in the mouth or lips
- Loose teeth
- Jaw pain or stiffness
If a suspicious lesion, tissue abnormality or unusual symptoms are present, the dentist will refer the patient for a more comprehensive assessment. Early detection of oral cancer offers the most favorable outcomes of care.