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Oral Cancer

Deadly to Ignore

February 2002—Approximately 75 percent of oral cavity and pharyngeal cancers are attributed to the use of smoked and smokeless tobacco. (These cancers include the mouth, tongue, lips, throat, parts for the nose, and larynx.) Those who chew tobacco are at high risk for gum and cheek lesions that can lead to cancer. Alcohol consumption is another risk factor. Combinations of tobacco and alcohol are believed to represent substantially greater risk factors than either substance consumed alone. Other factors that can place a person at risk for these cancers are viral infections, immunodeficiencies, poor nutrition, exposure to ultraviolet light (a major cause of cancer to the lips), and certain occupational exposures.

Oral cancer accounts for two to four percent of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States, but relative survival rates are among the lowest of major cancers. Only one-half the number of persons diagnosed with oral cancer are alive five years after the diagnosis. In contrast to other cancers (e.g. breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers) the overall U.S. survival rate from oral and pharyngeal cancer has not improved during the past 16 years. Survival rates for oral cancer in minorities have decreased.

Incidence of oral cancer varies greatly throughout the world. In western countries, such as the United States, England or Wales, oral cancer accounts for two to five percent of all cancers. These numbers are low compared with a 40 percent prevalence in Sri Lanka and 50 percent in India. Southeast Asian persons also have a high frequency of oral cancer.

Oral cancer today occurs twice as often in males as in females. This is considerably different from the 5:1 male to female ratio of forty years ago. Increased tobacco use among women is the main reason for the change in cancer rates compared with rates in the 1950s. Age is also a factor--95 percent of oral cancers occur among persons over the age of 40 and 60 being the average age at diagnosis.

Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cancer

  • a mouth sore that fails to heal or that bleeds easily
  • a white or red patch in the mouth that will not go away
  • a lump, thickening or soreness in the mouth, throat, or tongue
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing food.

Most early signs of oral cancer are painless and are difficult to detect without a thorough head and neck examination by a dental or medical professional.

Oral cavity and pharyngeal cancers occur on anatomic sites that lend themselves to early diagnosis and treatment. Detection of oral cancer through periodic medical and dental examinations can significantly reduce the risk of these life-threatening cancers.