Oral cancer is the 6th most common cancer in men and 14th in women with more than 30,000 new cases occurring each year. Many types of cancer are frequently publicized in the news, increasing people’s awareness of their risk factors and symptoms, but oral cancer doesn’t get much press. What’s most disconcerting is that the number of new cases and the death rate from oral cancer is up 11 percent from 2006. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 75 percent of the cases of oral cancer are associated with smoked and smokeless tobacco use.
If oral cancer isn’t diagnosed and treated in its early stages, it can spread, leading to chronic pain, loss of function, irreparable facial and oral disfigurement following surgery, and even death. If found early, oral cancer has a promising survival rate, but a lack of dental care and the vagueness of the symptoms can lead to delay in diagnosis. Many people discover oral cancer only when it has metastasized to another location, most likely the lymph nodes of the neck and beyond, at which point the prognosis is poor.
Risk factors for oral cancer
Unlike some cancers, oral cancer doesn’t have a large list of related risk factors. We can sum up the majority of the risk of oral cancer with two words and neither should be of any surprise — tobacco and alcohol. The good news is you have the choice to remove these major risks and the bad news is too many seldom do.
Tobacco use: The main risk factor for oral cancer is tobacco use.
Excessive alcohol consumption: An estimated 75 to 80 percent of people with oral cancer consume alcohol. A large number of smokers also drink heavily, making a direct connection between alcohol and oral cancer harder to prove. Studies at this point indicate a higher risk for those who both smoke and drink heavily.
Sun exposure: Lips are also an area where oral cancer can occur; sun exposure is definitely a risk factor for cancer of the lip. Block those rays with sunscreen and/or a large brimmed hat.
Age and gender: Another risk factor for oral cancer is age, with greater than 90 percent of cases occurring in people over the age of 45. The average age is around 60. Forty years ago, oral cancer had a 5 to 1 male to female ratio, but now, the ratio is just 2:1. This is directly linked to the increased rate of smoking in women.
Common symptoms of oral cancer
The most frequent oral cancer sites are the tongue, the floor of the mouth, and soft palate tissues in back of the tongue, lips, and gums. Your dentist probably performs a thorough screening for oral cancer each time you see him — another good reason not to miss your dental appointments!
Now that we’ve brought oral cancer out into the light, here is a list of some of the most common oral cancer symptoms:
Non-healing sores: If you have a sore, blister, erosion, or bleeding in the mouth or on your lip that doesn’t heal in 2 to 3 weeks, have it evaluated by a medical doctor.
Discolored patches: Any white or red patches on the tongue, lips, gums, or lining the mouth should raise suspicion of cancer. These patches require immediate attention.
Lumps: Even if you don’t see discoloration, a lump needs to be evaluated. If you have any lumps in the lip or mouth, have them looked at so that the doctor can decide whether they need further evaluation.
Difficulty swallowing: Any pain that you may have — whether it’s in the throat, mouth, or when you move your tongue — should be evaluated.