Crimson and white oral cancer awareness month ribbonShare on Pinterest
Getty Images/Chinnapong

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 common type of malignancy worldwide.
  • The 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 times more likely to develop oral cancer than those assigned female at birth.
  • Mortality (death) because of oral cancer hasn’t decreased significantly in the past 40 years.
Was this helpful?

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 most commonly affected by oral cancer.

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 factor for oral cancer. This includes:
  • Consuming alcohol: Heavy drinkers have a 5-fold higher risk of getting oral and oropharyngeal cancers, according to information from the National Cancer Institute.
  • Having human papillomavirus (HPV): Certain subtypes of HPV have been associated with 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:

If oral cancer has spread to nearby tissues, you may also experience:

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 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States.

Early detection is vital

The average 5-year survival rate for oral and oropharyngeal cancer is 68%. The mortality from oral cancer is largely because of the fact that many oral cancers, about 50%, aren’t diagnosed until they’ve reached an advanced stage.

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.

Was this helpful?

According to the ACS, there’s no routine screening or testing program for oral cancer.

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:

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.
  • State and 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.
Was this helpful?

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.