Oral cancer is cancer that affects your mouth. It can develop on any tissue, including your gums, tongue, or lips. Early detection and treatment significantly improve outcomes.
April of each year is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. This campaign aims to raise the public’s awareness of oral cancer, including:
- which symptoms to look out for
- who’s more likely to get oral cancer
- the importance of early detection and treatment
- screening recommendations
Keep reading below to learn more about oral cancer and how you can make the most of Oral Cancer Awareness Month, including where to find free or low cost oral cancer screening and dental care.
Fast facts about oral cancer
- Oral cancer is often grouped together with oropharyngeal cancer, which is cancer that develops in the back of the throat. Together, these two cancers are the
sixth most commontype of malignancy worldwide.
American Cancer Society (ACS)estimates that 54,540 people in the United States will receive new diagnoses of oral or oropharyngeal cancer in 2023. About 11,580 people will die from these cancers in 2023.
- Most people who get oral cancer are
over the age of 40, although it can happen in young people as well.
- People assigned male at birth in most racial and ethnic groups are
2 to 3 timesmore likely to develop oral cancer than those assigned female at birth.
- Mortality (death) because of oral cancer
hasn’t decreased significantlyin the past 40 years.
Oral cancer happens when cells in the tissues of your mouth begin to grow and divide uncontrollably. Squamous cells, thin flat cells that line the surfaces of your mouth, are the cell type
While we don’t know the exact cause of oral cancer, there are several risk factors that are known to increase your risk of developing it. These are:
- Using tobacco: According to the ACS, using tobacco is the
strongest risk factorfor oral cancer. This includes:
- Consuming alcohol: Heavy drinkers have a
5-fold higher riskof getting oral and oropharyngeal cancers, according to information from the National Cancer Institute.
- Having human papillomavirus (HPV): Certain subtypes of HPV
have been associatedwith oral cancers.
- Being an older age: Most oral cancers happen after age 40. The average age at diagnosis is
64, with only about 20% of diagnoses happening prior to age 55.
- Being assigned male at birth: Men get oral cancer more often, possibly because of the fact that they may be more likely to use tobacco, alcohol, or both.
- Being exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light: UV light exposure, such as from excess sunlight or from tanning beds, can boost the risk of cancer developing on the lips.
Some of the potential symptoms of oral cancer include:
- a lesion or sore in your mouth or on your lips that doesn’t go away
- a lump or mass in your mouth or on your lips that you can feel
- a white or red patch on your tongue, gums, or the inside of your cheek
- persistent pain in your mouth
- unexplained bleeding in your mouth
- jaw swelling
- difficulty chewing
- areas of numbness in your mouth
If oral cancer has spread to nearby tissues, you may also experience:
- sore throat that doesn’t go away
- feeling like you have a lump in your throat
- hoarse voice
- painful swallowing
- difficulty swallowing
- ear pain
- unexplained weight loss
- swollen lymph nodes in your neck
The list above can also be symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer, which is most often caused by HPV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that HPV causes
Early detection is vital
The average 5-year survival rate for oral and oropharyngeal cancer is
This makes early detection and treatment all the more vital. When oral cancer is found and treated while in its earlier stages, the 5-year survival rate greatly improves.
According to the ACS, there’s
However, dentists typically check for signs of oral cancer during routine dental checkups, which many people receive once or twice a year. During this time, a dentist will look and feel around your mouth for signs of oral cancer.
Some dentists may also use special lights and dyes to find potentially cancerous lesions in your mouth. These types of exams may be recommended if you’re at a higher risk of oral cancer.
It’s also important to regularly check your lips and mouth for any unusual changes. If you notice something concerning, make an appointment with a doctor or dentist so that they can have a look.
You can also take steps to prevent oral cancer from developing. These include:
- not using tobacco products or quitting if you do
- consuming alcohol in moderation or not at all
- receiving the HPV vaccine
- lowering your exposure to UV light
- getting regular dental checkups
Where to find free or low cost oral cancer screening
A dentist can examine your lips and mouth for signs of oral cancer. However, if you don’t have dental insurance, you may be wondering where you can find free or low cost dental care. Don’t worry, we’re here to help:
- Some dentists give back to their community by offering free or low cost dental care. This search tool can help you find a dentist nearby that you can reach out to.
- Federally funded community health centers offer free or low cost medical care, including dental care. You can find one close to you using this search tool.
- Dental school clinics often provide low cost dental care. Use this link to find a dental school in your area.
- Nonprofit organizations such as Dental Lifeline Network offer dental care to vulnerable adults throughout the United States. You can see if you qualify here.
Stateand local health departments may also be able to connect you with ways to get free or low cost medical or dental care.
- Some government-funded programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, or Children’s Health Insurance Program, may include dental services. However, coverage may be limited depending on the program.
Oral cancer is when cancer affects your lips or the inside of your mouth. People that use tobacco products, consume alcohol, or have an oral HPV infection are more likely to get oral cancer.
There’s no official screening test for oral cancer. However, a dentist typically looks and feels for signs of oral cancer during a routine dental checkup.
The outlook for people with oral cancer is best when it’s found and treated early. As such, it’s important to not only get regular dental checkups but also to be aware of any unusual changes in your mouth.
If you notice something concerning, see a doctor or dentist.