Everything You Need to Know About Oral Cancer

Cancer is always a scary subject. But in order to protect yourself, you should know the facts and risks of oral cancer.

dental x-ray to find oral cancer

Photo By Joseph Morris via Flickr.

“You have cancer.”

Those are the last words that anyone would want to hear.

Still, that’s something that over 48,000 people will hear in 2016—from oral cancer alone. The Oral Cancer Foundation says that it will  cause over 9,575 deaths. That means that oral cancer is killing roughly 1 person per hour, 24 hours per day.

But what can be done to prevent this disease, and if nothing else, the deadly consequences? To keep yourself educated on the matter, we’ve laid out every crucial fact you need to know about the facts, risks, diagnosis, and treatment of oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Cells

Cancer begins when the process of new cell growth goes wrong. Normally, cells will grow, divide, and form new cells as the body needs them. Normal cells that are damaged or grow old will die, only to be replaced by new cells. However, sometimes old or damaged cells don’t die as they should, or new cells will form even when the body doesn’t need them. This causes a mass of tissue to form called a tumor.

Almost all oral cancers begin in the flat cells (also called squamous cells) that cover the surfaces of the tongue, lips, and mouth. There are 2 main types of oral cancers:

  • Oral Cavity Cancer (spreads from the mouth)

  • Oropharyngeal Cancer (spreads from the throat)

Risk Factors

So what are the causes of oral cancer? That’s a natural question to have once you’ve been diagnosed. Although there isn’t an exact answer one way or another, there are certain risk factors associated with the development of oral cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), studies have found the following risk factors for oral cancer:

  • Tobacco
    The use of any kind of tobacco product increases the risk for oral cancer. Smoking cigars, cigarettes, pipes, or using smokeless tobacco like snuff or chewing tobacco can cause oral cancer. The risk is even higher if you use tobacco and are a heavy drinker of alcohol.

  • Consuming Heavy Alcohol
    Heavy drinkers are more likely to develop oral cancer compared to those who don’t drink alcohol. The more you drink, the higher the risk. And for those who use tobacco and drink, the risk is even higher. The NCI reported that 3 out of 4 people with oral cancer have used alcohol, tobacco, or both.

  • Human Papillomavirus Infection
    Cancers that are linked to the HPV infection are usually found at the back of the throat, base of the tongue, and in the tonsils.

  • Sun Exposure
    Too much sun exposure on your lips can cause cancer. You can reduce the risk by using a lip balm or lotion that has SPF to block the sun’s harmful rays.

  • Diet
    A lack of fruit and veggies in one’s diet may increase the risk of developing oral cancer according to the NCI.


According to WebMD, most symptoms of oral cancers include:

  • Persistent sores that bleed easily and do not heal within a couple weeks (usually found on the neck, face, or mouth)

  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth

  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth or throat

  • Loss of feeling, numbness, pain, or tenderness in the face, neck, or mouth.

  • Lumps, bumps, rough spots, or swelling found on the lips, gums or areas inside the mouth.

  • Soreness or discomfort in the back of the throat.

  • Ear pain

  • Dramatic weight loss

  • Chronic sore throat

  • Unexplained hoarseness or change in voice

  • Difficulty moving jaw or tongue, or speaking, chewing or swallowing.

Be sure to contact your dentist or health care provider if you notice any of these symptoms.


In order to catch cancer in its earliest, more treatable stage, it’s important to keep up with regular dental check-ups.

Physical Examination

A dentist or doctor will check your mouth and throat for lumps, swelling, and velvety red or white patches developing in the mouth. During a physical exam, they will carefully examine the back of your throat, the roof of your mouth, and the insides of your cheeks and lips.

MRI or CT Scan

If a cause for your symptoms is not found, they may refer you to a specialist. If necessary, they may take a CT scan or MRI to find a hidden tumor.


To be sure that the abnormal area is potentially cancerous, a doctor will need to do a biopsy. This procedure entails the removal of a small piece of tissue from the tumor. A pathologist will then check for cancer cells by looking at the tissue under a microscope.


Your doctor must learn the stage and extent of your cancer once you have been diagnosed. To do so, they may order some of the following tests:

  • CT Scan

  • X-rays

  • MRI

  • Endoscopy

  • PET Scan

Stages of Cancer

The stage of oral cancer is described by the size of the tumor, and whether it has invaded nearby tissues or lymph nodes.

  • Early Cancer

    • Stage I or II

    • Small tumor (smaller than a walnut)

    • No cancer cells in lymph nodes.

  • Advanced Cancer

    • Stage III or IV

    • Large tumor (as big as a lime)

    • Has spread to lymph nodes, nearby tissue, or other parts of the body


Depending on the stage and type of oral cancer you may have, there are a variety of treatment procedures that may be used to cure your disease.

  • Surgery
    Undergoing surgery to remove the tumor is a common treatment for oral cancer. In some cases, other tissues around the mouth, neck, and/or the lymph nodes may also need to be removed. Surgery is often paired with radiation treatments to ensure that the cancer is completely gone.

  • Radiation
    Radiation therapy is a procedure that uses high-energy rays to kill the cancer cells. Patients who have small tumors or who are unable to receive surgery often undergo this kind of therapy. It’s also used with surgery to shrink the tumor before, and also to destroy cancer cells that remain post surgery. There are 2 types of radiation treatments used to treat oral cancer:

    • External Radiation
      The radiation emits from a machine during this kind of therapy. Sometimes, centers offer IMRT, which uses a computer to avoid damage to healthy tissue by targeting closer to the oral tumor.

    • Internal Radiation (or Brachytherapy)
      Internal radiation is not commonly used to treat oral cancer. Instead of radiation coming from a machine, it comes from radioactive material in wires, seeds, or tubes put directly in the cancerous tissue.

  • Chemotherapy
    Using drugs to kill cancer cells is called chemotherapy. To treat oral cancer, the drugs are given intravenously, entering the bloodstream and traveling through your body. Often, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are used at the same time.

  • Targeted Therapy
    Another way to treat oral cancer is through a drug called targeted therapy. It’s also given with radiation therapy and chemotherapy. For oral cancer, the drug cetuximab is given intravenously. It binds to oral cancer cells, interfering with the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Participating in Clinical Trials

Thanks to oral cancer research, people with this disease have hope for a better future. Funding for this research has allowed for real progress in oral cancer detection and treatment. Clinical trials help find out whether new treatments are effective and safe in the hopes of finding a cure. All over the world, doctors conduct research studies on people who are volunteering to try out new and innovative treatments like chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and different combinations of drugs for oral cancer.  Though there are risks associated with clinical trials, protecting and aiming to heal the patient is a doctor’s first priority. If you’re interested in being a part of a clinical trial, you can read more information on research studies on the NCI website.

Taking good care of your mouth is the first step to protect yourself from oral cancer. Also, routine dental visits will help keep your mouth healthy, and signs of cancer will be recognized more quickly by a dental professional. For more tips on maintaining a healthy regimen for your mouth and details on how to get the affordable care you need, you can read more posts on our resourceful blog.


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