oral cancer screening

Oral Cancer: Its Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Prevention

Oral cancer, also known as oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer, is a common disease that affects hundreds of thousands of people every year in the United States alone. Each year, over 450,000 people across the globe are diagnosed with the disease.

This serious oral disease primarily affects adults ranging in age from 40 to 60 years old, but anyone can develop symptoms of oral cancer.

While oral cancer isn’t necessarily difficult to treat or detect, it is unfortunate that most people don’t realize they have it until it’s too late. As a result, the death rate for this specific cancer is significantly high.

Are you at risk of developing oral cancer?

Certain lifestyle choices can heighten your risk of developing the disease. Keep reading to find out what they are.

reduce risk of oral cancer

Table of Contents

Oral Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

While oral cancer can happen to anyone, there are definitely factors that increase your likelihood of contracting the disease.

If you smoke, drink or have unprotected sex, you’re at risk for oral cancer.

The main oral cancer risk factors involve drinking heavily, smoking cigarettes or tobacco, and contracting a common sexually transmitted disease known as human papillomavirus (HPV).

But, you don’t have to smoke, drink or have unprotected sex to get oral cancer.

On top of these risk factors, there are two genetic diseases that can drastically increase your susceptibility to oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Risk Factors

Genetic Disorders That Can Cause Oral Cancer:

  • Fanconi anemia is a disorder caused by defective genes. It affects a person’s bone marrow and reduces the production of healthy blood cells. It also greatly increases the risk of developing cancer in the throat or mouth.
  • Dyskeratosis congenita is another genetic disorder that visibly affects the skin and nails. People with this condition may have irregular skin pigmentation or distorted nails. They’re also more likely to prematurely develop oral cancer.

But, the risk factors don’t stop there. Sun exposure and eating poorly can both put you at risk of oral cancer. And, gender is definitely a factor. Men are twice as likely to get oral cancer than women.

The good news is that being exposed to these risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean you will ever get oral cancer.

But, are you worried you might have it?

Read on to discover common symptoms associated with cancer of the mouth, tongue, and throat.

Common Symptoms of Oral Cancer


tongue cancer symptoms

Do you have chronic bad breath? This could be a warning sign of a much bigger problem. Sometimes bad breath is a key indicator that you may have oral cancer.

But there are many other symptoms that show up with the disease.

Here are some other symptoms commonly associated with oral cancer:

  • Excessive coughing
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Pain while swallowing
  • Red or white patches on the tongue
  • Sores, lumps or ulcers in the mouth and throat
  • Pain in your ears, mouth, throat and around the face

And more.

Did you know… tongue cancer is a common type of oral cancer. In its early stages, oral cancer of the tongue may look like a canker sore. In later stages, patients often develop lesions and tumors.

Learn how your dentist can screen you for oral cancer, but first who should get screened. 

Who Should Get Screened for Oral Cancer? 

According to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, they recommend adults age 18 and older get tested for oral cancer once a year.

At one point it was much easier to identify the factors that would make someone more susceptible to oral cancer. Now as much as 40 percent of oral cancer patients have NONE of the traditional risk factors, such as: 

  • Previous history of oral cancer
  • 45 years of age or older
  • Heavy use of alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Use of smokeless tobacco

What To Expect At Your Oral Cancer Screening

Most oral cancer patients find out when it’s already too late. If you’re concerned you may have it, don’t wait to visit your trusted dentist.

During your visit, your dentist can perform a screening to determine whether you show signs of oral cancer.

Here’s what your dentist will do through each step of your oral cancer screening.

8 step oral screening process

The 8-Step Oral Cancer Screening Process

Step 1) Look underneath your upper lip and inspect the gums and tissue

Step 2) Feel around your lip and check for any questionable spots

Step 3) Check your tongue for mucous, lesions and other warning signs

Step 4) Inspect the tissue behind the bottom lip and the surrounding gums

Step 5) Look at your bottom palate and test for softness

Step 6) Check your top palate and tonsils for any irregularities

Step 7) Inspect underneath the tongue and around the floor of the mouth

Step 8) Feel around the side of the tongue and look for warning spots

Note: Dr. Chang’s Family Dentistry in Corpus Christi, Texas is known for their oral cancer expertise. At this dental office, you will get screened for oral cancer and find out how you can prevent it from progressing.

Oral Cancer Diagnosis & Stages of Oral Cancer

Like most cancers, oral cancer presents itself in different stages. When diagnosing oral cancer and its progression, doctors will first look at 3 main factors.

The 3 Main Factors of Your Oral Cancer Diagnosis

  1. Tumor — oncologists evaluate the size of the tumor, ulcer or mass
  2. Node — doctors check whether the cancer is present in the lymph nodes
  3. Metastasis — doctors determine whether cancer has spread to other parts or systems of the body

Once doctors look at these 3 things, then they give each a score of 0-4 or X. The lower the number, the slower the development of cancer. While 0 means there is no presence of cancer, X means data is inconclusive.

For late-stage oral tumors, the diagnosis is broken into 2 parts:

  1. T4a — the cancer is “moderately advanced,” meaning it has progressed and grown into other areas
  2. T4b — the cancer is “very advanced,” meaning it has not only grown into other areas, but it has also spread deeper into tissues and organs

An example of an early stage oral cancer diagnosis: T1 N0 M0

This means there is a small mass present (around 2 centimeters), but cancer hasn’t reached the lymph nodes, and it has not spread to other parts of the body.

An example of a late-stage oral cancer diagnosis: T4b N3 M1

This means the tumor is larger than 6 centimeters, and it is present in the lymph nodes. On top of that, the cancer is now affecting other parts of the body.

oral cancer diagnosis

Note: when your cancer reaches the later stages, your oncologist will likely recommend chemotherapy. Keep reading to discover other treatment methods commonly associated with oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Treatment Methods

Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor may recommend surgery, radiation or chemotherapy as a treatment method. Here’s a little more information about each oral cancer treatment method.

The 3 Main Medical Treatments for Oral Cancer

  • Surgery — In its early stages, before cancer spreads, doctors can surgically remove the affected area. Popular oral cancer surgeries include complete removal of the larynx (voice box), lymph nodes or a section of your tongue
  • Radiation — This treatment method uses x-rays and lasers to stop abnormal cells from metastasizing
  • Chemotherapy — In advanced cases, chemotherapy is performed to kill cancerous cells and prevent them from multiplying

Now that you know how to treat oral cancer, let’s take a look at oral cancer survival rates.

Oral Cancer Survival Rates

If you catch oral cancer in its early stages, you are likely to recover from it and continue to live your everyday life. On the other hand, if your oral cancer spreads to other parts of the body, your chance of survival diminishes considerably.

As you can see in the graph below, the 5-year survival rate for stages 1 and 2 is very high (83%) while it drastically lowers as cancer progresses to stages 3 (56%) and 4 (34%).

oral cancer survival rates

One of the main problems related to oral cancer is that cases often go undiagnosed until cancer progresses to stage 3 or 4.

Whether you think you may be experiencing oral cancer in its early or late stages, don’t wait to contact a medical professional. You can start by visiting your dentist.

If your dentist’s oral screening concludes you might have oral cancer, you will be referred to an otolaryngologist, otherwise known as an ear, nose and throat doctor. Your dentist may also recommend you visit an oncologist who specializes in cancer treatment and prevention.

Oral Cancer Prevention

The best way to prevent oral cancer from happening to you is to eliminate unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking, drinking and having unprotected sex.

It’s also important to stay on top of your oral health. Brush and floss your teeth routinely, and visit your dentist on a regular basis. This way, you can ensure everything looks normal and healthy.

Schedule Your Oral Cancer Screening Now

Ready to gain peace of mind and find out whether what you’re experiencing is oral cancer?

The dental professionals at Dr. Chang’s Family Dentistry can help.

Click here or call 361-992-7631 to schedule your dental visit now.

Located in Corpus Christi, Dr. Chang’s Family Dentistry helps Texas patients maintain a healthy smile for years to come. Derek J. Chang, DDS, and his team of dentistry experts provide a clean and comfortable experience every time.

Dental services available at Dr. Chang’s Family Dentistry in Corpus Christi, Texas

  • Tooth cleaning
  • Tooth extraction
  • Cosmetic dentistry
  • Oral cancer screening
  • Sleep apnea and TMJ
  • Emergency dental services
  • Fillings, crowns and root canals

And much, much more

To schedule a dental appointment with your trusted Corpus Christi dentist, click here or call 361-992-7631 right now.

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