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The Signs of Oral Cancer

by | Apr 1, 2019

While oral cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the world, many people are unaware that they have oral cancer until it is too late. This is because the majority of people do not regularly look for signs of oral cancer or take the precautionary steps to reduce their risk of developing it.

Each April, the Oral Cancer Foundation partners with a number of organizations to raise awareness of oral cancer. These organizations want to encourage people to take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of developing the disease, know the signs of oral cancer, and be aware of oral cancer symptoms as they arise.


About Oral Cancer

Approximately 53,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in 2019, according to estimates provided by the American Cancer Society. Oral cancer typically affects the lips, soft tissues inside of the mouth, tonsils, back of the throat, salivary glands, esophagus, and the tongue. In its earliest stages, oral cancer affects only cells in the mouth. In its later stages, oral cancer cells can spread to tissues far beyond the oral cavity.

Men are twice as likely to be diagnosed with oral cancer than women. According to information presented by the American Academy of Oral Medicine, 40 percent of those newly diagnosed with oral cancer will not survive longer than 5 years. An estimated 10,860 people will die of oral cancer this year. The death rate of oral cancer is relatively high due to the fact that it is not usually discovered until the later stages when it is less responsive to treatment.


Types of Oral Cancer

There are many types of oral cancer. Oral cancer is defined as the cancer that affects the oral cavity and includes the throat, tongue, lips, and lymph nodes. Typically, 90 percent of oral cancers are known as squamous cell carcinoma, or squamous cell cancers. Squamous cells are the flat, skin-like cells that cover the inside of the mouth, nose, larynx, and throat.

The remaining 10 percent of oral cancers affect additional areas of the oral cavity. These include:

  • Salivary gland cancer – This form of adenocarcinoma affects the salivary glands in the lining of the mouth and oropharynx.
  • Adenoid cystic tumor – This type of oral cancer starts as a tumor in the salivary glands or mouth
  • LymphomaThese cancers initiate in the cells of the lymphatic system, including the tongue, tonsils, and lymph nodes.
  • MelanomaMelanoma develops from cells that give skin their pigment. In regards to melanoma and the oral cavity, this type of cancer can occur anywhere in the nose or mouth.


Stages of Oral Cancer

Doctors “grade” cancers to describe how cancer cells appear compared to healthy cells. Pathologists will study the cancer cells with a microscope and give them a grade between 1 and 4. This grading of cancer cells gives doctors an idea of how quickly the cancer is growing and how likely it is to spread. Low-grade cancers develop slowly and are less likely to spread compared to higher grade cancers.

Doctors describe the spread of oral cancer in four stages.

  • Stage 1: The tumor is 2 centimeters (cm) or smaller, and the cancer cells have not spread
  • Stage 2: The tumor is between 2 cm and 4 cm, and the cells have not spread
  • Stage 3: The tumor is either larger than 4 cm and has not spread to the lymph nodes, or is any size and has spread to the lymph nodes but not to the other parts of the body
  • Stage 4: Oral cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body

When oral cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage, there is a greater chance of survival after treatment. This is why oral cancer awareness is crucial, especially when it comes to recognizing the symptoms of oral cancer.


Oral Cancer Symptoms

Recognizing oral cancer signs and symptoms is the first step to preventing a late diagnosis of this disease. Lesions or growths are most commonly associated with oral cancer but are not the only symptom of oral cancers. Additional signs of oral cancer can include:

  • A mouth or lip sore that does not heal
  • A white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
  • A lump, crust, rough spot, thickening, or small area of eroded tissue in your mouth
  • A lump or growth inside your mouth
  • Pain in the mouth, tongue, lips, throat, or ear
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Loose teeth
  • A sore throat or the feeling of something caught in your throat


Preventing Oral Cancer

Aside from recognizing the signs of oral cancer early, there are other ways to reduce your risk of oral cancer. One of the most important steps you can take in preventing oral cancer, according to the Prevent Cancer Foundation, is to avoid tobacco and alcohol use.

Here is the full list of oral cancer prevention tips:

  • If you use tobacco products, quit immediately. Smoking and the frequent consumption of alcohol can cause the most commonly occurring lesions, known as white lesions or leukoplakia.
  • Women should limit their alcohol intake to a maximum of one drink per day. Men should limit their alcohol intake to two drinks per day.
  • Avoid overexposure to UV light. Stay out of the sun, especially when the sunlight is at its strongest between 10 am and 4 pm.
  • When in the sun, be sure to use SPF to protect your skin. Always use a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher.
  • Eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables, as these foods contain the nutrients, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that appear to have cancer-fighting properties.
  • Get vaccinated for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), since this most common sexually transmitted disease can cause cancer in the back of the throat, known as oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Visit the dentist regularly for dental checkups, and ask your dentist to perform oral cancer screenings.

If you are experiencing signs of oral cancer, or participate in any of the behaviors that cause oral cancer, be sure to visit your local dentist regularly for an oral cancer screening. At Triangle Dentistry, we offer new patients a free oral cancer screening using our VELscope technology.


Triangle Dentistry located in Raleigh, NC provides a state-of-the-art facility that offers exceptional general dental and specialty services guided by empathy of patient’s needs and desires. Services range from dental crowns and implants to veneers and whitening procedures. For further information, questions or to schedule an appointment, contact the office at (919) 747-3592.