While most people are familiar with the most common forms of cancer (breast, lung, prostate, and colon to name a few), many are unaware of the potentially devastating effects of oral cancer, which accounts for about three percent of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States.
While that percentage may not seem significant, consider the fact that that translates to about 53,000 new cases each year.
Because oral cancers can spread quickly, early detection is absolutely essential.
But because the forms of cancer that affect the mouth and areas of the throat, tongue, and gums aren’t as well known as other forms of the disease, few people may actually know the warning signs to watch for or what to do in case of unusual symptoms.
“There are several types of oral cancers, but the most common kind which accounts for about 90% of all oral cancers is squamous cell carcinoma,” says New York City-based dentist, Dr. Lauren Becker, DDS, PC.
The second most common form of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma or SCC often occurs on sun-exposed areas of the skin, but can also develop in areas like the mouth, genitals, and anus.
“[SSC] is a common type of cancer that will likely be seen in every dental practice at some point,” says New Jersey-based dentist, Dr. Dan Di Cesare, DMD.
“Due to long term habits like smoking, excessive alcohol use, and chewing tobacco, oral cancer is likely to appear in patients in their 40s through 60. The increased prevalence of the human papillomavirus or HPV has increased the risk of oral cancer in patients in their 20s and 30s.”
To Di Cesare’s point, there are a list of known risk factors that may increase a person’s risk for developing mouth cancer, including:
- Tobacco use of any kind — that includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, etc.
- Heavy alcohol use
- Excessive sun exposure to your lips
- Human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection
- A weakened immune system
The most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. HPV can spread through direct sexual contact to genital areas, as well as the mouth, and throat and oral HPV specifically is often transmitted to the mouth by oral sex (but can be transmitted in other ways).
Oral HPV affects about 10% of men and 3.6% of women.
Becker adds that other factors that may increase the risk of oral cancer include stress, certain hormonal imbalances, and even poor oral hygiene, but there are other lifestyle habits to look out for as well.
New York City-based dentist, Dr. Lilya Horowitz, DDS, adds another lesser known risk factor to the list: “A major one that people may not be aware of is vaping,” she says.
But high-risk lifestyle factors aren’t the only contributing factors to the development of the disease.
“Oral cancer can affect anyone, even without the typical ‘risk factors’ which is why in our office we do an oral cancer screening every six months,” Horowitz says.
”Many times, dentists are detecting oral cancer first. We are the first line of defense which is why skipping dental checkups for years may affect more than just your teeth, it is about your overall health.”
What To Watch Out For
One tricky aspect of identifying oral cancer is the fact that it can occur in a variety of areas and it isn’t always necessarily SSC-related.
“Cancer of the mouth is more dependent on location rather than actual type of cancer,” Di Cesare says. “Oral cancer can be found on the tongue, underneath the tongue, or what is called ‘the floor of the mouth.’ It can also be found on the tonsils, the gums, the inner cheek, lips, and the back of the throat. The most visible signs of cancer or precancer cell change is often seen in patients with long term chewing tobacco use.”
So what should people be aware of when it comes to the signs and symptoms?
“Most oral cancers can be easily mistaken for an ulcer or a mouth sore,” Becker says.
“These can be present on the lips, tongue, gums, cheeks, roof of mouth or floor of mouth. Lesions are non healing and will present with irregular borders. Lesions can also present as lumps or bumps in the mouth. Any lesion, lump or bump that lasts more than two weeks should be evaluated by a professional and in certain instances, should be biopsied.”
Some of the signature symptoms of oral cancer include:
- A sore or ulcer on the lip or mouth that doesn’t heal
- A firm patch or bump that is white or reddish in color inside the mouth
- Loose teeth
- A feeling of numbness or pain unrelated to decay or gum disease
- A swelling or lump inside the mouth
- Mouth or ear pain
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
How To Prevent Mouth Cancer
While there’s no guaranteed way to completely prevent oral cancer, there are important lifestyle strategies that may help minimize the risk of developing it:
- Don’t use tobacco in any form, and if you already use it, stop as soon as possible.
- If you choose to drink alcohol, consume it in moderation — for healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men over age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.
- Avoid excessive sun exposure and protect your lips from the sun any time you’re outdoors by applying a product with sunscreen, and/or wearing a broad-brimmed hat that covers your face.
- See your dentist regularly and ask them to inspect your whole mouth for abnormalities or changes. While imaging technology cannot currently screen for oral cancers, experts are trained to spot the signs of potential problems.
“The most important thing to remember is that it is necessary to visit your dentist every six months in order to check for anything abnormal or atypical in the oral cavity,” Becker says. “Your dentist should be screening for oral cancer at every visit! Make your check up today!”
While oral cancer can be life-changing, the overall 1-year survival rate for patients is 81% and the 5 and 10-year survival rates are 56% and 41%, respectively.
“There is hope!” Di Cesare says. “Patient education about the causes of oral cancer and its symptoms has become more prevalent. Advances in technology have led to an easier diagnosis in the dental office.”
And it’s worth noting that even in the absence of risk factors, oral health and cancer screenings are important components of a comprehensive health plan including wellness screening through a company like Ezra.
“The mouth is the entrance window into the body,” Becker says. “The health of the oral cavity is associated with the cause of various diseases, including cancer. It can be influenced by local and systemic factors and managing oral health has become increasingly important for the health of the rest of the body.”
Want to be more proactive about your health? Consider booking a full-body MRI screening scan or gifting a scan to a loved one.