ARTICLES

Oral Cancer - Symptoms, Common Risk Factors and Prevention

  • The risk of developing oral cancer increases as you get older.

  • There are several lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking and drinking alcohol.

  • Oral cancer can be successfully treated if caught at an early stage.

  • Your dentist/periodontist can play an important role in the early detection of oral cancer.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the risk of developing oral cancer increases as you get older and is greatest after 45 years of age. Oral cancer is rare in children and young adults. In 2020, an estimated:

  • 5,400 Canadians will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer.

  • 1,500 Canadians will die from oral cavity cancer.

  • 3,700 men will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer and 1,050 will die from it.

  • 1,650 women will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer and 440 will die from it.

Oral cancer can spread quickly but it can also be cured if found and treated before it spreads. Treatment really depends on factors like the stage of cancer, when it’s caught and where it has developed.

Your dentist can play an important role in the early detection of oral cancer. They may notice subtle changes in the mouth that you won’t. An oral cancer examination performed by your dentist during a routine dental exam is fast, easy and painless – and it could save your life.

What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer refers to all cancers of the oral cavity, which includes the following:

  • Lips and tongue

  • Teeth and gums

  • The lining inside the lips and cheeks

  • The roof and the floor of the mouth

Most oral cancers happen on the sides of the tongue, floor of the mouth and lips. Oral cancer starts in the cells of the mouth. Normally these cells are quite resistant to damage, but repeated injury from smoking, alcohol or even friction may cause sores or painful areas where cancer can start.

Symptoms

Oral cancer symptoms include:

  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal.

  • A lump on the lip or in the mouth or throat.

  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth.

  • Unusual bleeding, pain or numbness in the mouth.

  • A sore throat that does not go away, or a feeling that something is caught in the throat.

  • Difficulty or pain with chewing or swallowing.

  • Swelling of the jaw causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable.

  • A change in voice and/or pain in the ear.

If you have experienced any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your dentist right away to get it checked out. Dentists can spot things you can’t, so even if you don’t meet the risk factors, it’s a good idea to get checked out during your regular dental exams.

Common risk factors

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, there is convincing evidence that the following factors increase your risk for oral cancer.

  • Smoking and chewing tobacco. Most oral cancers are linked to tobacco use, particularly if combined with heavy alcohol consumption.

  • Alcohol. The more you drink, the greater your risk. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases the risk of developing oral cancer more than using either one alone.

  • Betel quid and areca nut contain cancer-causing substances. People who chew betel quid or areca nut have a higher risk of developing oral cancer, especially in the inner lining of the cheeks and lips.

  • Sun exposure increases the risk of developing lip cancer. This is especially true for people who work in the sun for long periods of time. Most lip cancers occur on the bottom lip, likely because it’s more exposed to the sun.

  • Infection with HPV-16 increases the risk of oral cancer. Infection with HPV-18 may also increase the risk. HPV is likely the cause of oral cancer that is not linked with tobacco or alcohol use.

  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables— fruit and vegetables have a protective factor that is believed to reduce the risk for oral cancers.

  • People with a weakened immune system have a higher risk of developing oral cancer, especially lip cancer. The higher risk may be due to taking drugs that suppress your immune system.

  • People with poor oral health may have several missing teeth, bleeding gums or chronic infections from bacteria and viruses like HPV. They may not go to the dentist very often to take care of their mouth. Studies show that people with poor oral health have a higher risk of developing oral cancer.

Prevention

  • See your dentist/periodontist for a regular dental exam.

  • Quitting (or reducing) your tobacco and alcohol use lowers your risk of developing oral cancer.

  • When you are outside and exposed to the sun, use a lip balm with UV protection and wear a hat.

  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

  • Brush and floss your teeth daily.

Information as per the Ontario Dental Association https://www.oda.ca/oral-health-basics/oral-conditions-diseases/oral-cancer/