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Understanding Oral Cancer

Oral cancer (or mouth cancer) is a progressive disease that can affect the mouth, lip, tongue, and the pharynx (back of the mouth and throat). In most cases, oral cancer appears as a lesion and is often accompanied by red or white patches that affect oral tissue. As the cancer progresses, a lingering ulcer may form in the tissue of the mouth. The sides of the tongue and the base of the mouth are two of the most common areas affected by oral cancer.

Mouth Cancer Risk Factors

Similar to other cancers, the chance of developing mouth cancer depends on a couple of crucial factors: genetics and lifestyle habits. In general, most dentists agree that the chance of developing oral cancer increases with age—and people who smoke or chew tobacco, drink alcohol in excess, or are frequently exposed to ultraviolet radiation have an even greater risk.

Early Diagnosis Can be Difficult

Early detection is key to increasing the chances of survival for all cancers; however, oral cancer is more difficult to detect than others. This is because the early warning signs of oral cancer are quite similar to common mouth sores and are often mistaken as benign cold sores, canker sores, minor infections, or temporary irritants caused by oral trauma (biting) or eating acidic foods. As a result, oral cancer is commonly diagnosed in later stages after the disease has already spread or metastasized. Lip cancer, for example, usually appears in the lower lip as a flakey, blistering ulcer—an irritation that most misinterpret as a harmless cold sore. To complicate matters further, cancers of the tongue or floor of the mouth often resemble the same pain or discomfort felt by an ordinary canker sore, a warning sign that many people ignore.

Oral Cancer Exam

Most dentists perform an examination during a routine check-up or a dental cleaning appointment to identify signs of oral cancer. For proper diagnosis, a dentist or doctor will conduct a biopsy by removing a tissue sample from the abnormal area(s) for further examination. A thorough oral cancer examination should include the following:

  • A visual examination of your face, neck, lips, and mouth for signs of possible cancer (e.g. lesions, red or white patches, or noticeable lumps)
  • A tactile examination by feeling the floor of your mouth, neck, and glands for swelling
  • A careful inspection of your tongue by gently pulling from side to side and visually checking the underside for discoloration or sores
  • An examination of your throat—this is your stereotypical doctor assessment when your dentist asks you to stick out your tongue and say “ah”


Treatment Options

If a pre-cancerous condition is found, then dentists often recommend surgery to remove the infected area(s). Laser therapy is becoming more common and is also used in treating oral cancer. Although less effective, other alternatives include restrictive diets, vitamins, and other drugs. If you notice sores or ulcers or unusual blotches in your mouth that don’t heal within two to three weeks, then you should schedule an appointment with your dentist for an oral examination.

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.