Oral Cancers

Most people aren’t aware that oral cancer causes one American death every hour and has for the past 40 years. While other cancers are decreasing, oral cancer is still on the rise, up a projected 11% over last year. More than 30,000 people will be diagnosed this year, but only 57% will live more than 5 years. The key to survival is early diagnosis.

In many cases, oral cancer is diagnosed when white lesions appear on the soft tissues in the mouth. By the time we can see these spots, it may be too late to save the patient. Recent advances have produced diagnostic tools that detect oral cancer before the lesions are visible to the naked eye, increasing the cure rate to greater than 80%!

Moreover, people with many forms of cancer can develop complications-some of them chronic and painful-from their cancer treatment. These include dry mouth and overly sensitive teeth, as well as accelerated tooth decay.

If oral cancer is not treated in time, it could spread to other facial and neck tissues, leading to disfigurement and pain.

Older adults over the age of 40 (especially men) are most susceptible to developing oral cancer, but people of all ages are at risk.

Oral cancer can occur anywhere in the mouth, but the tongue appears to be the most common location. Other oral structures could include the lips, gums and other soft palate tissues in the mouth.

Warning Signs

In general, early signs of oral cancer usually occur in the form of lumps, patchy areas and lesions, or breaks, in the tissues of the mouth. In many cases, these abnormalities are not painful in the early stages, making even self-diagnosis difficult.

Here are some additional warning signs:
Hoarseness or difficulty swallowing.
Unusual bleeding or persistent sores in the mouth that won’t heal.
Lumps or growths in other nearby areas, such as the throat or neck.
If a tumor is found, surgery will generally be required to remove it. Some facial disfigurement could also result.

Oral Cancer Facts

Of the 400,000 people worldwide who are diagnosed each year with oral cancer, only half will be alive in five years time. Every hour of every day, one American dies of oral cancer.

About 30,000 Americans diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer each year, 8000 will die.
Every year in the UK some 4,400 people contract mouth cancer – a condition that has (according to a Cancer Research UK survey) increased by a quarter in the last decade and kills more people than cervical and testicular cancer combined.

Oral cancer is far too often detected in late stage development — the primary reason for the high death rate. Oral cancer can have potentially disfiguring effects on patients, seriously compromising their quality of life. Early detection of abnormalities can make a large difference in life expectancy; oral cancer is 90% curable when found early.

Smoking in combination with heavy alcohol consumption (30+ drinks per week) is the primary (75%) risk factor for oral cancer. Heavy smokers (more than one pack a day) are at a 24 times higher risk for oral cancer. Smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes, or using chew or snuff tobacco are the greatest risk factors accounting for 80 to 90% of all oral cancers.

A person who uses alcohol and tobacco is 100 times more likely to develop oral cancer than someone who does not use either substance.

Other risk factors include prolonged sun exposure (for cancer of the lip) and human papillomavirus infection.

Signs and symptoms include sores that bleed and don’t heal, swelling of the tongue or throat, red or white spots, or even tiny marks that look similar to canker sores.

Oral cancer is more likely to strike after the age of 50 however there has been a significant increase in oral cancer in people under age 30.

The tongue is the most common site of oral cancer. Typically, the side of the tongue (farthest back in the mouth) is involved. The floor of the mouth (that area beneath the tongue) is next in order of frequency followed by the insides of the cheeks with involvement of other areas showing a lesser incidence.

Men’s risk of being diagnosed with oral caner is twice that of women.

The treatment for oral cancer may be surgery, radiotherapy, chemo or a combination of these options. Small, accessible tumours may be simply removed by lasers and perhaps treated with photodynamic therapy.
Oral cancer experts say that 75 per cent of oral cancers could be avoided by a healthy lifestyle and diet:
Eat a balanced diet rich in fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and dairy products which will provide all the essential nutrients
Brush twice every day (in the morning and before bedtime) and maintain proper oral hygiene habits.
Have a dental checkup every six months.

Oral Cancer Myths

There is no evidence to suggest that cancer grows more rapidly when “exposed to air” and I would not let this idea prevent potential life saving surgery.

Food additives are chemicals that help preserve, colour and flavour our food. Food grown in other parts of the world and shipped to Canada may contain preservatives. It is very unlikely that food additives cause cancer.

Food additives are chemicals that help preserve, colour and flavour our food. Food grown in other parts of the world and shipped to Canada may contain preservatives. It is very unlikely that food additives cause cancer.

You’re still more likely to die of a smoking-related disease than anything else – but the risk is lower than if you smoked more.Scientists call the risk ‘linear’. So smoking 20 cigarettes a day gives you a 50 per cent chance of dying from a smoking-related disease – cancer or heart disease or lung disease. Smoking two a day brings that risk down to 5pc – still the most dangerous thing a smoker will do in their life.Cigars are safer – but only if you don’t inhale, and they come with a higher risk of oral cancer.

While it is true that having a close relative, – mother, father, sister or brother – with oral cancer, may increase your risk, it does not automatically mean you will develop oral cancer.
In fact, although stress has been suspected as a risk factor in addictions, obesity, high blood pressure, peptic ulcer, colitis, asthma, insomnia, migraines, physiological disorders and a weakened immunity system, a connection to the development of cancer has not been proved. Stress has also not been linked to the return of cancer.


Prevention is the key to staving off oral cancer. One of the biggest culprits is tobacco and alcohol use. Certain kinds of foods and even overexposure to the sun have also been linked to oral cancer. Some experts believe certain oral cancer risk factors are also hereditary.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is one of the best defenses against oral cancer. Maintaining good oral hygiene, and regular dental checkups, are highly recommended.

Oral cancer is sometimes associated with known risk factors for the disease. Many risk factors can be modified but not all can be avoided.

Tobacco and alcohol use: Tobacco use (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco) is responsible for most cases of oral cancer. Alcohol, particularly beer and hard liquor, are associated with an increased risk of developing oral cancer. The risk of developing oral cancer is higher in people who use both tobacco and alcohol. Avoiding or stopping the use of tobacco decreases the risk of oral cancer. It is not known if stopping the use of alcohol decreases the risk of oral cancer.

Sun exposure: Exposure to sunlight may increase the risk of lip cancer, which occurs most often on the lower lip. Avoiding the sun and/or using a sunscreen or colored lipstick on the lips may decrease the risk of lip cancer.

Other factors: Some studies suggest that being infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) may increase the risk of oral cancer.

Chemoprevention: Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to prevent or delay the growth of cancer or to keep it from coming back. Tobacco users who have had oral cancer often develop second cancers in the oral cavity or nearby areas, including the nose, throat, vocal cords, esophagus, and windpipe. Studies of chemoprevention in oral cancer are under way, including chemoprevention of leukoplakia and erythroplakia.