Focus on Oral Cancer

ORAL CANCER incidence rates in the UK
have risen by a third in the last decade.
It is a life threatening disease and early
diagnosis is of paramount importance

    • ORAL CANCER can include cancer of the MOUTH, LIPS, TONGUE, CHEEK, FLOOR OF THE MOUTH and HARD AND SOFT PALATE. Cancer of the PHARYNX (THROAT) and SINUSES may also appear in the mouth.
    • ORAL CANCER can be life threatening and an early diagnosis and treatment is very important.
    • MOUTH and TONGUE cancers are the main types and roughly 18 people are diagnosed DAILY with oral cancer in the UK.


What causes Oral Cancer?

    • 75% of oral cancers in men and 50% in women are caused by smoking
    • Around a third in men and a fifth in women are linked to alcohol consumption
    • Smokeless tobacco increases oral cancer risk
    • Promiscuous lifestyle can cause oral cancer particularly through transmission of the human papillomavirus (HPV) in the oropharynx (upper part of the throat)
    • More than half of oral cancer cases in the UK are linked to insufficient fruit and vegetable intake
    • Chronic irritation such as caused by sharp teeth and ill-fitting dentures
(Statistics by: Cancer Research UK’s Statistical Information Team)


What are the signs and symptoms?

Oral Cancer may appear as a growth or sore that does not go away and must therefore be treated with suspicion, also

    • Swellings, lumps and bumps anywhere in the mouth, lips and even the gums
    • White or red patches with a velvety appearance or a combination thereof
    • Unexplained bleeding (not to be confused with gingivitis which may also present with bleeding)
    • Unexplained numbness, loss of feeling, pain or tenderness in the mouth, neck and sometimes face
    • Persistent sores that bleed easily and do not heal within 2 weeks
    • Difficulty in chewing or swallowing, speaking or moving the tongue or jaw and a feeling that something is caught in the back of the throat
    • Chronic sore throat, hoarseness or changes in the voice
    • A change in the way your teeth or dentures fit together – a change in your bite
    • Occasionally ear ache
    • Unexplained weight loss



Whitish patches

A whitish patch could be leukoplakia. This is commonly seen in tobacco users, people with ill-fitting dentures and a habit of chewing on their cheek. This condition can progress to cancer.

Red patches

Red patches in the mouth (called erythroplakia) are less common than leukoplakia but have a greater potential for being cancerous. Any white or red lesion in your mouth should be evaluated by your dentist.


Who gets oral cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society men are 2 times more at risk of developing oral and pharynx cancer, especially those over the age of 50.


    • Smokers are 6 times more likely than non-smokers to develop oral cancers. Chewing of smokeless tobacco products also increase the risk.
    • Excessive consumption of alcohol: oral cancers are 6 times more common in drinkers than non-drinkers. People who smoke and drink alcohol have an even higher risk.
    • Neglected teeth and poor oral hygiene
    • Family history of cancer
    • Excessive exposure to the sun (lip cancer)


It is important to note: Oral cancer is the sixth most common cancer amongst men. The risk of developing oral and pharynx cancers increases with both the amount as the length of time tobacco and alcohol products are used.


Overall 1 year survival rate for patients with all stages of oral cavity and pharynx cancers is 81%. 5 year rate is 15% and 10 year 41%.


How is oral cancer diagnosed?

If you notice some of these symptoms contact your dentist immediately for a professional examination.

Your dentist is ideally positioned to conduct an oral cancer screening exam which is and should be a routine part of a comprehensive dental examination.  More specifically your dentist will feel for any lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, face and oral cavity and on the outside of the oral cavity.

Inside your dentist will look for sores, discoloured tissues and check for the signs and symptoms as described above. Any suspicious looking tissue will be discussed with you and may include monitoring, referral or treatment.

What can I do to prevent oral cancer?

You can take an active role in preventing oral cancer or detecting it early.

    • Conduct a self-exam at least once a month using a bright light and a mirror. Look and feel your lips and front of your gums. Tilt your head back and look and feel the roof of your mouth. Pull your cheeks out to view the inside of your mouth, the lining of your cheeks and gums. Pull out your tongue and look at the surfaces. Examine the floor of your mouth. Look at the back of your throat. Feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes in both sides of your neck and under your lower jaw. Call your dentist’s surgery immediately if you notice any of the signs mentioned above, or if you are uncertain.
    • Don’t smoke or use any tobacco products and drink alcohol in moderation (refrain from binge drinking).
    • Eat a well-balanced diet.
    • See your dentist regularly.  Even though you might be conducting frequent self-exams sometimes dangerous spots or sores in the mouth can be very tiny and difficult to see on your own.