Oral cancer is a disease resulting from abnormal cell growth in the mouth, lips, tongue or throat. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that 4,100 new cases of oral cancer were diagnosed in Canada in 2013. It is also estimated that 1,150 of those Canadians diagnosed in 2010 will die from the disease. Fortunately, oral cancer can be diagnosed with an annual cancer exam provided by a dentist.
People over the age of 45 are most at risk. The good news is that oral cancer can be treated successfully if caught early enough. Most early signs of oral cancer are painless and hard to discover without a complete examination by a dentist or physician. However, oral and throat cancers lend themselves to early diagnosis and treatment. Regular dental exams and early detection can greatly reduce the risk of these life-threatening cancers. Your dentist has the expertise and training needed to detect early signs of the disease through a comprehensive oral examination.
Oral cancer refers to all cancers of the oral cavity, which includes the following:
- gums (gingiva)
- lining inside the lips and cheeks (labial mucosa and buccal mucosa)
- floor of the mouth
- roof of the mouth (palate)
- the area behind the wisdom teeth
Most oral cancers are located on the sides of the tongue, floor of the mouth and lips.
Oral cancer starts in the cells of the mouth. Normally these cells are quite resistant to damage, but repeated injury from smoking, alcohol or even friction may cause sores or painful areas where cancer can start.
Signs and symptoms of oral cancer
Since early detection is so important, check your mouth when brushing and flossing. If you notice any changes in the way your mouth looks, or any of the following signs and symptoms, contact your dentist immediately:
- A mouth sore that does not heal, or that bleeds easily.
- A white or red patch in the mouth, or on your lips or tongue that will not go away.
- A lump, thickening or soreness in the mouth, throat or on the tongue.
- Pain, tenderness or numbness anywhere in the mouth or lips.
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing food, speaking or moving the jaw or tongue.
- Consumption of tobacco products (cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars, etc).
- Heavy alcohol consumption, especially in combination with smoking.
- Prolonged, repeated exposure of the lips to the sun.
- Poor diet; genetics and gender — men have historically been found to be more prone to oral cancer.
- A history of leukoplakia – a thick, whitish-colour patch inside the mouth.
Diagnosis and treatment
Treatment depends on the severity and location of the disease, as well as the age and health of the patient. If your dentist suspects oral cancer, a biopsy (surgical removal and microscopic examination) and/or vital staining of the lesion will be performed to confirm the diagnosis. Imaging tests such as X-rays, ultra sounds, CT scans or MRIs may be taken. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery may be necessary to remove tumor(s).
To help prevent oral cancer:
- See your dentist regularly for dental exams and ask about oral cancer screenings.
- Stop using tobacco products (including cigarettes, cigars, pipes or smokeless tobacco) — ask your dentist about ways to help you quit.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Limit sun exposure and use U/V protective lip balms.
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
- Check your mouth regularly for signs or symptoms and report any changes in your mouth to your dentist right away.
- Visit your dentist regularly for a thorough exam, including an oral cancer screening.
Smoking cigarettes and the use of other tobacco products can be extremely dangerous to your health. Each year, more than 30,000 new cases of cancer of the mouth and throat are diagnosed. Of these, nearly 75 percent of oral and throat cancers are caused by the use of smoked and smokeless tobacco.
Did you know?
- Smokers have a five-times greater risk of dying from oral cancer than non-smokers.
- More than 9,000 people die from oral cancer each year.
- When tobacco and alcohol use are combined, your risk of oral cancer is increased 15 times more than that of non-users of tobacco and alcohol products.
- You cannot reduce your risk of oral cancer by switching from cigarettes to a pipe, cigars or smokeless tobacco.
- Oral cancer includes cancers of the mouth, tongue, lips, throat, parts of the nose and larynx. The five-year survival rate for these cancers is only about 50 percent.