Oral cancer doesn’t receive as much attention as other types of cancer — such as breast, lung or prostate — but that doesn’t mean it’s any less serious. In fact, understanding who is at highest risk could be key to surviving the diagnosis. Dr. Paul Schalch Lepe, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, sheds light on what patients need to know.
We don’t hear as much about oral cancer as we do other types of cancer. Why is that?
The short answer is that oral cancer isn’t as common as other types of cancer. About 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed this year with oral cancer. Far more awareness and education is needed because of the threat it poses. Oral cancers can occur anywhere in the oral cavity, including the lips, tongue, mouth and throat. Historically, survival rates have not been as high as they could be, partly because without a routine screening exam, oral cancer is often discovered late when it has spread and is thus more difficult to treat.
Who is most at risk for oral cancer?
Far and away, using tobacco and being a heavy drinker are two of the greatest risk factors for oral cancer. Most oral cancers could be prevented if people did not smoke or chew tobacco or drink heavily. Oral cancer is about twice as common in men as in women, and the likelihood of being diagnosed increases with age.
One of the most recent risk factors we’re seeing is human papilloma virus (HPV) infection. The number of oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV has risen dramatically over the past few decades, probably due to increased testing for it. Additionally, we know that lip cancer is more common in people who have been exposed to the sun without protection like sunscreen.
What can someone do to detect oral cancer earlier?
Be aware of changes to your body and talk to your doctor about anything that doesn’t seem normal. Routine follow-up with a dental professional can help with early detection.
The most common symptoms of oral cancers include:
- Swelling or thickening of areas in the mouth, such as the gums
- White or red patches in areas of the mouth
- Unexplained bleeding or numbness
- Persistent sores or ulcers
- Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Trouble chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving the tongue or jaw
- Ill-fitting dentures, dental pain or loose teeth
- Any presence of a suspicious neck mass
How is oral cancer treated?
The most common treatment is surgery to remove the cancerous tissue and, occasionally, radiation therapy. For advanced cases, chemotherapy may be necessary.
The Cancer Centers of Sharp offer a complete range of care for oral cancer, from diagnosis to treatment and recovery. Learn more.