Oral cancer is a general term to refer to any cancer that begins in the oral cavity (mouth), which includes the lips, cheeks, tongue, roof and floor of the mouth, gums and teeth. Oral cancer can also occur in the minor salivary glands, often in the roof of the mouth.

Each year in the U.S., roughly 48,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer and another 9,600 will die from the disease. While anyone can develop oral cancer, men are twice as likely as women to develop the disease. It most often occurs in people over age 40.

Know the Risk Factors and Take Action to Help Prevent Oral Cancer

Though it’s possible to develop oral cancer with no identifiable causes, there are several known factors that can increase your risk. The Oral Cancer Foundation cites that the two greatest risk factors are drinking alcohol – especially large amounts and/or on a regular basis – and using tobacco. The risk is even greater for those who do both.  In addition to alcohol and tobacco use, other risk factors include:

  • UV light exposure, usually from sunlight and/or tanning beds
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Poor diet
  • Weakened immune system
  • Certain genetic syndromes, such as Fanconi anemia or dyskeratosis congentia
  • Graft versus host disease (GVHD), which can occur after bone marrow or stem cell transplant
  • Untreated periodontal (gum) disease

While oral cancer is not always preventable, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of developing the disease by following a healthy lifestyle and addressing any risk factors. Some ways to prevent oral cancer include:

  • Limiting your alcohol intake
  • Quitting smoking
  • Visiting the dentist regularly for routine exams
  • Wearing protective clothing, lip balm with SPF and sunscreen while outdoors – this is especially important if you have fair skin
  • Avoiding tanning beds
  • Using protection during oral sex to prevent HPV
  • Following a healthy diet
  • Making sure dentures fit properly
  • Following your physician’s advice to monitor and treat any pre-cancerous growths

Be Proactive: Know the Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Though many oral cancer symptoms can be credited to other factors, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and perform self-exams at home.

Always talk to your physician or dentist if you experience any of the following symptoms for longer than two weeks:

  • Mouth sore that doesn’t heal
  • A lasting sore throat that doesn’t get better with treatment
  • Thickening or lump in the cheek
  • Mouth pain
  • White or red patches on the tonsils, mouth, tongue or gums
  • Tingling or numbness in the mouth or tongue
  • Trouble chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaw and/or tongue
  • Loosening or pain around the teeth
  • Lump or mass in the neck
  • Swelling of the jaw (may notice dentures not fitting)
  • Consistent bad breath
  • Weight loss
  • Voice changes

Preventative Dental Care in Early Oral Cancer Detection

When found in the early stages, oral cancer has an 80 to 90 percent survival rate. However, most oral cancer cases are diagnosed in the later stages, when the disease has spread and is more difficult to treat. Unfortunately, 43 percent of those diagnosed with oral cancer will not survive beyond five years.

Proper and thorough dental exams can do more than simply check for cavities – they can save your life. This is why your dentist can be your best ally for early detection of oral cancer. The condition of your mouth can change over time, so it’s important to see your dentist regularly so that he or she can observe you over time.

During your routine dental exam, your dentist should check your mouth for any signs of oral cancer. If your dentist discovers any suspect areas, he or she will recommend follow-up testing.