Oral cancer describes a number of cancers that begin in the mouth. It may appear virtually anywhere in the mouth, including the lips, cheeks, teeth, gums, tongue, floor of mouth, roof of mouth and throat. So what does oral cancer look like and who is at risk of getting it?
The appearance of oral cancer can vary greatly. Some signs to look out for include…
- Red or white patches, lumps, rough spots or eroded areas
- Persistent sores in the mouth
- Pain, bleeding or numbness in the mouth
- Difficulty swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw
- Changes in speech
It is estimated that 1/60 men and 1/140 women are at risk of developing oral cancer throughout their lifetime. Furthermore, certain factors can greatly increase a person’s risk of developing oral cancer:
- Smoking: approximately 60% of mouth cancers in Australia are caused by smoking.
- Heavy alcohol consumption: approximately 30% of mouth cancers in Australia are caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
- Human Papilloma Virus (HPV): HPV can be transmitted through oral sex which increases the risk of throat cancer (oropharyngeal cancer).
While we cannot fully prevent oral cancer, quitting tobacco smoking, reducing the amount of alcohol consumed and getting vaccinated against HPV can reduce your risk of developing it.
The importance of early diagnosis
If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned, especially if these symptoms have been present for more than 2 weeks, it is important to visit your dentist so that they can do the appropriate investigations or refer you to a specialist for further testing and treatment.
Currently, only 50% of people survive within 5 years of being diagnosed with oral cancer. This is mainly due to a delayed diagnosis, where the cancer is found only once it is in its later and more fatal stages. Therefore, the earlier you visit the dentist, the more likely it is that they will be able to catch a potential cancer in its early stages, improving the chance of survival.