Oral Cancer: What You Need to Know

Do you ever wonder what the dentist is doing during the exam when they are looking around in your mouth, on the inside of your cheeks, or under your tongue? They are actually checking your mouth for signs of oral cancer. This is performed regularly at all new-patient exams and all six-month checkups at Riccobene Associates Family Dentistry.

There are some startling statistics surrounding oral cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), there will be about 40,000 people diagnosed with oral cancer in 2012 in the U.S. alone. They also state that it will not only kill more than 7,800 people this year, but that about 45% of those diagnosed will not survive more than five years.


Signs of oral cancer to look for include a sore in the mouth that will not heal. It can be red or white in color. It can be flat or cause a lump in the mouth or throat that can affect how you swallow and speak. Cancerous areas may or may not be associated with pain or bleeding. Not all locations in the mouth have the same risk of developing oral cancer. For example, the side of the tongue, bottom of the tongue, and floor of the mouth are higher-risk areas. Unfortunately, many times the cancer goes undetected by the patient and is only discovered after it has spread and is symptomatic in other areas of the body.

Risk Factors

There are risk factors that can increase someone’s chance of getting oral cancer, but they are not absolute requirements. Family history can be a risk factor for oral cancer, but a much higher risk factor includes tobacco (smoked and smokeless) and alcohol use. Each one is a risk factor alone, but when combined the risk increases dramatically. Other risk factors include sun exposure to the lips, a diet low in fruits and vegetables, advanced age, and certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV). Although people with these risk factors are more susceptible to getting oral cancer, everyone is at risk of getting oral cancer.

The outlook for someone diagnosed with oral cancer depends on where the cancer is located and how early it is diagnosed. Early diagnosis is critical to the long-term survival of the individual. Data on the five-year survival rates from the NCI range from 83% chance of survival with early detection to 33% chance of survival if detected after the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. This is why it is so important to maintain your regular checkups with your dentist.


If your dentist finds a suspicious area in the mouth, the only definitive way to identify the area is to have it biopsied. If the area is found to be cancerous, then surgical removal of the entire area will be required, as well as referral to a medical specialist or oncologist. Treatment may also involve chemotherapy or head and neck radiation treatments. The effect on the patient’s lifestyle and degree of disfigurement can also be lessened with early diagnosis.

Oral cancer is a common cancer that can be fatal, but if caught early, it can be treated with favorable, long-term results. Be sure to live a healthy lifestyle, monitor your sun exposure, and maintain your routine dental exams at Riccobene Associates Family Dentistry in order to protect yourself.

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