women holding up a sticky note with a smile on it after completing an oral cancer exam

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is the growth of abnormal cells. These cancer cells invade healthy cells in the gums, inner cheeks, tongue, and surrounding areas. Oral cancer can be fatal if undetected.

Who is at Risk for Oral Cancer?

Although anyone can get oral cancer, there are a few things that increase an individual’s risk. These factors include tobacco use (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, snuff, chew, and smokeless tobacco), alcohol use, and exposure to the Human Papillomavirus (specifically, strain HPV16). Men are also two times more likely to develop oral cancer than women. According to The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, there are about 50,000 people diagnosed with oral cancer in the United States each year. About 9,000 people in the United States die from oral cancer every year- that’s one person per hour.

What are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?

The most common symptoms of oral cancer are sores in the mouth that do not heal, red or white patches, bumps or areas of thick skin, and difficulty or painful swallowing. It is important to note that in the beginning stages of oral cancer, there are often no symptoms– which is why it is crucial to get checked regularly. The sooner oral cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat!

How is Oral Cancer Diagnosed?

When the doctor discovers or examines a questionable spot, they will typically refer the individual to an oral surgeon. The oral surgeon will evaluate the area, and likely conduct a biopsy by removing a piece of the skin to send to a lab to be tested for cancerous cells.

How is Oral Cancer Treated?

If the sample comes back as cancerous, there are a variety of different treatment options. Surgery to remove the lesion is the preferred method, but other options are available such as radiation and chemotherapy if necessary. A doctor will decide what type of treatment will work best for the patient.

What if it’s not Oral Cancer?

There are a variety of conditions that have symptoms similar to oral cancer including cold sores, canker sores, mouth burns, and gingivitis. Although these are common conditions that can be treated fairly easily, it is always best to err on the side of caution and get checked out just in case.

Where can I go to get Checked?

It is important get checked for oral cancer whether you have a cause for concern or not. Your general dentist is most likely checking during your yearly exam, but if they don’t mention it, ask to be certain! If you do have an area that you’re worried about, remember that we can examine it right away without a referral from your dentist!

What if I’m too Scared to get a Biopsy?

People often become afraid to get tested because of rigorous internet searching and self-diagnosis. The exam and possible sample needed to test cells for cancer is significantly less painful than worrying and not knowing. Dr. Spencer Wilson at The Maxillofacial Surgery Center is an expert on dental anxiety, and our entire team will help you through the simple process!