The Oral Cancer Foundation finds that Americans don’t have a strong understanding of the signs and risks of oral cancer. If caught early, oral cancer can be treated. Early diagnosis reduces your risk of health complications and increases your rate of survival. And yet, statistics show that, on average, one person dies from oral cancer every hour of the day, 24/7, 365 days a year. More than 50,000 new cases of oral and oropharyngeal cancers will be diagnosed in the United States this year. Oral Cancer Awareness Month helps kickstart the conversation with our health care and dental practitioners around the signs and risks of oral cancer.
How Common is Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer is the cancer of the mouth and the pharynx — the part of the throat behind the mouth and nasal cavity. The most common oral cancer affects the squamous cells in your mouth. These are thin, flat cells that make up the outermost layer of our skin. Once these cells are compromised, the cancer cells multiply quickly, spreading to the lymph nodes of the throat. This is the point when oral cancer is most often diagnosed. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation:
- 132 new people in the United States will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer every day.
- An estimated 51,550 new cases of oral and oropharyngeal cancers will be diagnosed in the US this year.
- Of those individuals, 40 percent will not survive longer than 5 years, and many who do survive will suffer long-term problems.
What Does Oral Cancer Look Like?
Conduct a self-exam once a month on your mouth. Feel inside the mouth, jaw, and neck and look for:
- A white or red patch in the mouth
- Persistent sores, ulcers, or irritation in the mouth cavity
- Difficulty in chewing, swallowing, moving the jaw or tongue
- Numbness in the tongue
- A sore throat that doesn’t go away
- A constant toothache or pain in the jaw
- An earache
If you come across anything suspicious, give your dentist a call right away. As with many diseases, early diagnosis can make a huge difference for health outcomes. Even if you don’t see any warning signs listed above, visit your dentist twice a year for regular oral cancer screenings.
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What Causes Oral Cancer?
The main causes of oral cancer are lifestyle, age, poor nutrition, exposure to UV light, genetics, and medical conditions.
Smoking, Tobacco, and Oral Cancer: Tobacco can contribute to oral cancer because it contains cancer-causing agents called carcinogens. Vaping, dipping, and chewing tobacco also present risks for developing oral cancer. About 75 percent of all people who get oral cancer use tobacco. The younger you were when you started using tobacco and the longer you’ve used it, the greater your risk.
Ultraviolet Light Exposure and Oral Cancer: The Cancer Treatment Centers of America have found that, “Cancers of the lip are more common among people who work outdoors and visit tanning beds, and among those with prolonged exposure to sunlight.”
Drinking Alcohol and Oral Cancer: Did you know that drinking excessive alcohol increases your risk of oral cancer? If you drink a lot of alcohol and also use tobacco products, you have the greatest risk of getting oral cancer. Dehydration, cirrhosis of the liver, and nutritional deficiencies are associated with drinking and can also contribute to the development of oral cancer.
Age, Nutrition, and Oral Cancer: The risk of developing cancer increases with age. Research tells us that men are twice as likely as women to develop oral cancer. Research also tells us that consuming a lot of fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, and seafood can help protect us against oral cancer. Click here for mouth-healthy recipes.
Human Papillomaviruses (HPV) and Oral Cancer: Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are a group of more than 100 related viruses. Some are linked to the development of cancer, like oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Currently, 20 to 30 percent of all oral cancer is associated with an HPV infection. This virus is mostly spread through skin-to-skin contact and oral-genital contact. For more information on HPV and oral health, click here.
Poor Dental Hygiene and Oral Cancer: Untreated dental plaque and tooth decay can cause an infection in the mouth and gums. This can accelerate the growth of cancer.
For more information on ensuring you have a healthy mouth and smile, check out:
*Updated March 2020