What is Oral Cancer and How Common is It?
Oral cancer is a potentially fatal form of Head and Neck Cancer. In 2005, the World Health Organization ranked oral cancer as the 11th most prevalent cancer in world. Oral cancer represents for 3 percent of all new cancer cases in the United States, accounting for a higher proportion of all cancers than skin melanoma or ovarian cancers. It is estimated that over 51,000 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2018.
Oral cancers are largely asymptomatic and do not tend to cause pain. As such, many oral cancers are diagnosed at a late stage. Sixty percent of oral cancers are only discovered when the cancer has already spread to other areas of the body. Due to the late diagnosis of many oral cancers, the mortality rate of oral cancers tends to be particularly high. Late diagnosis of oral cancer has a very high mortality rate, with a 5 year survival rate of only 9%. Fortunately, with regular check-ups and early detection the 5 year survival rate jumps to 85%.
Where Do Oral Cancers Occur?
Oral cancer can develop in any of the following places:
- The tongue – this is the most common location
- The lips – particularly the lower lip as this tends to be most prone to sun exposure.
- Inside the cheeks and the roof of the mouth
- The floor of the mouth, underneath the tongue
- The major salivary glands
- The oropharynx – the back of the mouth and the tonsils
What Are the Risks for Developing Oral Cancer?
An important aspect in the early detection of oral cancer is identifying individual risk factors. Broadly speaking, the main risk factors for oral cancer are:
- Tobacco use – this includes smoking and chewing tobacco
- Excessive alcohol consumption – the risk of oral cancer increases with the number of drinks per day. It is estimated that 64% of all head and neck cancers can be attributed to a combination of excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use.
- Sun exposure – particularly the lower lip in males
- Age– the risk increases as age increases
- Viral infections – particularly the human papilloma virus (HPV).
- HPV – HPV has been found in up to 22% of oropharyngeal tumors.
- Nutritional deficiencies – especially deficiencies in vitamins A, C and E. Dietary vitamin C has been associated with reduced risk of premalignant lesions.
- Genetic predispositions – people with a family history of cancer have been shown to have an increased risk of oral cancer.
What Does Oral Cancer Look Like?
Pre-cancerous and early cancerous lesions are asymptomatic and usually present as a white or red patch. These lesions can advance into ulcerations. Oral cancer can present as:
- Lesions that do not heal – can be a non-healing ulcer or tissue that is rough, crusted or eroded
- A color change in the oral tissues
- Pain, tenderness or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips
- Lesions on the tongue may develop a burning sensation or pain when the tumor is advanced. Tongue lesions may also present with abnormal taste in the mouth and swallowing difficulty.
How Can I Get Checked for Oral Cancer?
As part of your initial oral examination and regular check-ups, your dentist will conduct an oral cancer screening to look for any abnormalities. If any suspicious areas are detected, your dentist will collect a sample of the suspicious tissue from the area and send it to a laboratory for microscopic analysis. Depending on the area of the oral cavity involved, your dentist may refer you to a specialist for collection of the tissue sample.
We are pleased to be able to offer oral cancer screening to patients with state-of-the-art technology. Call us today on to reserve your appointment with one of our knowledgeable and friendly dentists.