Oral Cancer

The American Cancer Society diagnoses an estimated 30,000 new cases of oral cancer each year. Oral cancer includes cancers of the lip, tongue, pharynx, jawbone and oral cavity. Most often, oral cancer occurs in people over the age of 40 years.

Risk Factors of Oral Cancer

  • Tobacco use (smokeless, cigars, cigarettes and pipes)
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Previous cancer (especially oral)
  • Chronic exposure to any carcinogenic
  • Family history of cancer
  • Solar radiation
  • HIV infection
  • Chronic long term periodontal disease

Possible Signs and Symptoms

  • Mouth sore that doesn’t heal for over one week and bleeds
  • A lump or thickening of tissues
  • Persistent sore throat or hoarseness
  • Difficulty in chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness in areas of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw


The American Cancer Society recommends a cancer checkup every 3 years for those over 20 years of age and every year for those over 40 years. The disease often times goes unnoticed in its early, curable stages. Self and professional examination is the best method to catch early stage cancer. Be sure to have your head and neck examined as part of your dental exam. Many times a biopsy will be performed to detect if cancer is present (the stage, extent, and best treatment option). Cancer of the lip can be avoided with the use of lotion or lip balm with sunscreen and wearing a hat to block harmful rays.


If an abnormal area is found, a biopsy is done to determine its cause or diagnosis. Typically, you are referred to a specialist who will remove part or all of the area. An examination of the tissue for cancerous cells is done, and if cancer is present, additional tests must be done to determine if it is spreading and what areas are affected. You may also be asked to have a CT scan, ultrasonography or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) perfomed. A CT scan is a series of X-rays to show the inside areas of the body. An ultrasonography is high-frequency sound waves that bounce off tissues and organs to tell us more about that inside area. The MRI is a procedure that takes pictures of internal organs using a magnet linked to a computer.


Treatment will vary depending on the type and extent of cancer diagnosed. Two percent of all deaths in the United States are oral cancer related. Almost any cancer, when caught at an early stage, can be treated successfully. These treatments can include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy

Often times, oral problems such as mouth sores, tooth decay, dry mouth and lip peeling can occur with radiation and chemotherapy.


Reconstruction of the cancer site may require the following:

  • Prosthetics/cosmetic surgery
  • Speech-swallowing therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Psychological therapy

If you have any of the signs or symptoms listed above or have questions, please contact you dental care provider. Remember that the earlier oral cancer is detected and treated, the more likely it will lead to a better prognosis for a healthier life.