Oral Cancer: Facts, Screenings, Treatments

This year, an estimated 45,780 Americans will be diagnosed with some form of oral cancer.  And more than 8,600 people will die from this disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.

But, there’s an upside. Over the last 30 years, the incidence of oral cancer has been slowly declining. Every day, there’s more that patients and dentists can do to prevent or defeat this disease.

At Bergen Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery (BOMS), we believe that the first line of defense is a thorough understanding of the risk factors, symptoms and sites for oral cancer.

Looking for Oral Cancer in All the Right Places.

Oral cancer occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells form on the lips, in the oral cavity or in the back of mouth or throat (oropharynx).

Common oral cavity sites where cancer can occur include:

  • The front two-thirds of the tongue
  • The gums (gingiva)
  • The buccal mucosa (lining of the inside of the cheeks)
  • The floor of the mouth under the tongue
  • The hard palate at the front of the mouth
  • The retromolar tregone (area behind the wisdom teeth)

The oropharynx consists of the middle part of the throat (pharynx) behind the mouth, the back one-third of the tongue, the soft palate (back of the mouth’s roof), the side and back walls of the throat, and the tonsils.

Are You At Risk?

The more you know, the more you can improve your odds of avoiding or detecting cancer. The top risk factors (and at-risk populations) include:

  • Use of tobacco products including the new “smokeless” cigarettes;
  • Heavy alcohol consumption;
  • A combination punch of high tobacco levels and alcohol abuse;
  • Persistent exposure to UV rays of natural sunlight or artificial sunlight (tanning beds) leading to lip and skin cancer;
  • The rise in certain forms of the human papilloma virus (HPV 16);
  • The median age for adult men with oral cancer is 62; but for those with the HPV virus, the age is 52 to 56;
  • Gender: Men are 2x’s more likely to contract oral cancer than women;
  • The five-year survival rate for Caucasian males with oral cancer is twice that of African-American males;
  • One in 95 adults in the U.S. will be diagnosed with oral cancer in their lifetime, with the risk increasing by age 44.

What Are the Common Signs?

A general rule of thumb is: If something persists, it is suspicious. So, check it out!

  • A sore or lump on the lips or mouth that remains for two weeks or more;
  • A lump or change on the lips or gum area inside the mouth;
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth;
  • Persistent bleeding, pain or numbness on the lips or inside of the mouth;
  • A change in voice;
  • Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well;
  • Trouble chewing, swallowing, or moving the tongue or jaw;
  • A swelling of the jaw;
  • A persistent cough or feeling that something is stuck in the throat.

The more we learn about oral cancer and the more we understand how to prevent it, the quicker we will lower the number of cases reported each year. The elimination of risk factors like smoking or high alcohol use is a no-brainer. So is living a healthier lifestyle that includes higher levels of UV protection against sun damage; a diet rich in vegetables and fruit as opposed to sugar and fats; and, of course, diligent brushing, flossing and cleaning of our teeth.

Proactive Care & Early Screenings

Good dental care, preventive measures and proactive treatment will go a long way toward eradicating oral cancer. As with any form of cancer, the key to survival is catching it early.

At BOMS, we are strong advocates of proactive home care in tandem with professional screenings and thorough physical exams of the lips and oral cavity for any abnormalities. Our staff makes physical sweeps of the entire inside of the mouth, checks for swollen lymph nodes in the neck, make routine inquiries about patient health habits, and reviews recent dental and medical check-up records and treatments.

If more tests are warranted, the BOMS oral surgery team will perform in-office biopsies of suspicious cell tissues for lab analysis. Other tests may be required and can most often be done in our offices. These include exfoliative cytology (a collection of cells for the lip or oral cavity areas that appear suspicious); endoscopy (a tube-like insert with a lens and light slipped into the throat area); MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, etc.

All of us at Bergen Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery (BOMS) are committed to helping our patients and their families navigate through the tests and treatments for oral cancer to find the best approach for them.

We’re here to answer your questions and to give you the best care we can. For more information on tests and treatments for oral cancer, contact us at one of our offices: Hackensack: 201.343.8297, Westwood: 201.664.5656, or Ridgewood: 201.444.4137.