Overview

Oral cancer develops within your mouth or oral cavity. It’s one of a group of cancers involving your head and neck. The majority of oral cancers start in the cells that line your mouth and throat. These are classified as squamous cell carcinoma.

Here are four important facts about oral cancer:

1. Oral cancer is divided into stages

Similar to other types of cancers, oral cancer is divided into stages. Oral cancer is staged based on the TNM staging system:

  • T indicates tumor size
  • N indicates if the tumor has spread to your lymph nodes
  • M indicates if the tumor has spread to other parts of your body

You will need to undergo tests or examinations to find out the stage of your cancer. These tests may include:

2. Smokers and heavy drinkers have the highest risk of developing oral cancer

Smoking and excess drinking in combination can significantly increase your risk of oral cancer. Some studies suggest that heavy drinkers who are also smokers are up to 100 times more likely to be diagnosed with oral cancer than those who don’t drink or smoke.

3. Spending too much time in the sun is a preventable risk factor

Sun exposure, not wearing sunscreen, or going to a tanning salon increases your chances developing lip cancer. Wearing lip balm with SPF helps protect your lips from excessive sun exposure.

Oral cancers from UV rays have decreased in recent years. This is likely related to more awareness and protection from the sun.

4. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential

Early symptoms of oral cancer, such as lip or mouth sores and persistent pain, are often mistaken for other health conditions. Seeing your dentist regularly is one of the easiest and best ways to ensure early detection. If your dentist or doctor suspects oral cancer, you will undergo a physical exam as well as a biopsy.

Most mouth symptoms won’t turn out to be cancer. If you have any unexplained or persistent symptoms, you should see your dentist or healthcare provider as soon as possible. If you do have oral cancer, getting diagnosed and treated early can improve your chance of curative treatment.

Questions to ask your doctor

If you’re diagnosed with oral cancer, talking regularly with your doctor is essential to making informed choices about your healthcare. Bring this list of questions to your next appointment:

  • What type and stage of cancer do I have?
  • What is the goal of treatment? Is it curative or palliative?
  • What treatments are available?
  • What is your treatment recommendation?
  • What are the pros and cons of these treatment options?
  • What are the potential side effects?
  • What can I do to lessen the side effects of treatment?
  • How frequently will I need to go to the hospital for treatment?
  • Are there any investigational treatments or clinical trials that may help me?
  • Is there a counselor here I could talk to?
  • How frequently will you see me after my treatment is completed?
  • What are the next steps?