132 new people in the US are diagnosed with oral cancer every day in the US. According to the American Cancer Society, they estimate that about 10,850 deaths from oral cavity and pharyngeal (back of the mouth and throat) cancers will occur in just 2024. 

April is Oral Cancer Awareness month in the United States. This is a month dedicated to raising awareness about oral cancer, its risk factors, prevention, and early detection. We want to encourage the public to check their oral health! 

Why is Oral Cancer something to watch out for? 

  • Late Detection: Oral cancer often goes unnoticed until it has reached an advanced stage. This is because symptoms may not be apparent in the early stages, and people may not regularly visit a dentist or healthcare provider for oral cancer screenings.
  • Aggressive Growth: Oral cancers can grow and spread rapidly, invading nearby tissues and structures such as the tongue, floor of the mouth, gums, and throat. This aggressive growth can make treatment more challenging and reduce the chances of successful outcomes.
  • Metastasis: Oral cancer can metastasize, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes in the neck or distant organs like the lungs or liver. Once cancer has metastasized, it becomes much more difficult to treat effectively.
  • Impact on Critical Functions: Tumors in the oral cavity can interfere with essential functions such as eating, swallowing, speaking, and breathing. Depending on the location and size of the tumor, these functions may be compromised, leading to significant impairments in quality of life.
  • Risk Factors: Certain lifestyle habits and risk factors, such as tobacco use (including smoking and smokeless tobacco) and heavy alcohol consumption, significantly increase the risk of developing oral cancer. 
  • Limited Treatment Options: Treatment options for advanced oral cancer may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these approaches. However, treatment can be complex and may have significant side effects. In some cases, if the cancer is detected late or has spread extensively, treatment may be palliative rather than curative, focusing on managing symptoms and improving quality of life.

Overall, the danger of oral cancer lies in its potential to progress rapidly, metastasize, and significantly impact a person’s health, well-being, and survival if not detected and treated early.

Pharyngeal Cancers are a group of cancers that originate in the pharynx, which is the hollow tube that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the esophagus. Many symptoms of pharyngeal cancers align with the symptoms of oral cancer. 

Early detection of both pharyngeal cancers and oral cancers is important for better treatment outcomes. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment can help improve survival rates and quality of life for individuals with these cancers 

Here are some steps you can take to monitor for oral cancer:

  1. Regular Dental Check-ups: Routine dental check-ups allow your dentist to perform a thorough examination of your mouth, including checking for any abnormalities or signs of oral cancer.
  2. Self-Examination: Perform a self-examination of your mouth regularly, ideally once a month. Use a mirror and a bright light to check for any changes in the appearance or texture of the soft tissues in your mouth, including the lips, gums, cheeks, tongue, roof, and floor of the mouth. 
    1. Symptoms to look for:
      1. Ulcers that do not heal within 3 weeks
      2. Pain or discomfort in the mouth
      3. Lumps and swellings of no obvious cause in the mouth or neck
      4. Bleeding from the mouth or throat
      5. Red or white patches inside the mouth
      6. Changed in texture, hardness or roughness
      7. Teeth that become loose
      8. Difficulty or pain with swallowing, chewing, or moving the jaw
      9. Persistent hoarseness or changes to the voice
      10. Persistent coughing or the feeling that something is ‘stuck’ in the throat
      11. Persistent nasal congestion or blockage
      12. Numbness or tingling of the lips or tongue
      13. Unexplained weight loss
      14. Dentures that suddenly stop fitting properly
  3. Seek Prompt Medical Attention: If you notice any concerning symptoms or changes in your oral health, seek prompt medical attention. 

The chances of the signs and symptoms above being due to cancer are low, but it’s important to be aware of the differences in changes in your oral health to have the safest chance of early detection. Many of these symptoms can be caused by other factors, but if you are suspicious something may be wrong, please contact your dentist or doctor immediately to have it checked out.