What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer is a cancerous tissue growth located in or around your mouth.

What is the most common type of oral cancer?

Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for up to 90 percent of oral cancers. They develop from tissues that line the mouth and lips. Squamous cell carcinomas have a much greater chance of spreading (or metastasizing) in comparison to basal cell carcinomas. The lesion is often asymptomatic, which makes oral cancer screenings imperative. It most commonly appears as a reddish skin plaque or ulcer that grows slowly.

Where can oral cancer appear in my mouth?

Oral or mouth cancer most commonly involves the tongue. It may also occur on the floor of the mouth, cheek lining, gums, the roof of your mouth or the lips. It can arise from many types of tissue in the mouth, including salivary glands and lymph tissue.

What should I look for?

Keep your eye out for a skin lesion, lump or ulcer that does not go away after two weeks. This may be a small lesion on the tongue, lip or other mouth areas.  It is usually pale colored, but potentially could be dark or discolored. An early warning sign may be a white patch called a leukoplakia, or a red patch known as an erythroplakia on the soft tissues of the mouth. These lesions are usually painless initially; however, a burning sensation or pain may develop when the tumor is advanced. Other symptoms to look for are tongue problems, difficulty swallowing and mouth sores. Pain may be a late symptom, but most often oral cancers are painless.

What may increase my risk for developing an oral cancer?

Some risk factors include tobacco, alcohol, the sun and Human papillomavirus. Those who have had a hematopoietic stem cell transplant are also at higher risk. Chewing tobacco also causes problems from direct contact with mucous membranes and should be avoided. In terms of gender, men are affected twice as often as women, especially men older than 40.

How can a dentist tell if a lesion is cancerous or not?

Your dentist can identify a potentially cancerous lesion by examining it. However, a biopsy is the only way to know for sure. Benign and malignant lesions can look identical to the naked eye. A non-invasive brush biopsy can be performed to rule out the presence of cancerous cells. But the only definitive method for determining if cancerous or precancerous cells are present is through biopsy. The cells will then undergo microscopic evaluation to determine if they are indeed cancerous.

What will happen if a lesion in my mouth is determined to be cancerous?

Often times, all that is necessary is a small surgical incision made to remove the lesion from the area in question. Radiation with or without chemotherapy can also be used in conjunction depending on the severity, stage and size of the lesion.

Why is it so important for oral cancers to be detected early?

In 2011, around 37,000 Americans were diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer. Sixty-six percent of the time, these will be found as late stage three and four disease. It will cause over 8,000 deaths. With routine oral cancer screenings, we can start to reverse those numbers and catch cancer much earlier. Because oral cancer can spread quickly, early detection is important. An oral cancer exam can identify early signs of this disease. The exam is quick and painless and can be done during your regular dental checkup. Be sure to tell your dentist if you notice persistent changes in your mouth or throat, such as sores, swelling or if you have difficulty eating or swallowing.