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Oral Cancer Checkups Protect Lives

Seeing your dentist twice a year can help you keep your teeth and gums healthy. But those regular dental checkups can also catch oral cancers early, when they are easiest to treat.

Man's mouth is examined

Oral cancer starts on the lips or in these areas of the mouth (also called the oral cavity):

  • Front two-thirds of the tongue

  • Gums

  • Lining of the cheeks

  • Floor of the mouth

  • Roof of the mouth toward the front (hard palate)

  • Area behind the wisdom teeth

Oropharyngeal cancer, another type of oral cancer, is found in the throat behind the mouth (or oropharynx) in these areas:

  • Middle of the throat

  • Back third of the tongue

  • Roof of the mouth toward the back (soft palate)

  • Side and back walls of the throat

  • Tonsils

Most oral and oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. The type of cancer you have will determine your treatment options.

Common symptoms

Early detection and treatment are essential to preventing the spread of cancer cells to the lymph nodes and neck. Unfortunately, many people put off regular dental exams, delaying diagnosis and increasing their chances of a poor outcome.

You can help your dentist by performing your own self-examination between your regular visits, especially if you have risk factors for oral or oropharyngeal cancer. Use a hand-held mirror to check for any signs and symptoms of cancer in your mouth and throat.

These are common signs and symptoms of oral cancer:

  • White, red, or white and red patches on your gums, tongue, or lining of your mouth

  • A sore on your lip or in your mouth that will not heal

  • Bleeding in your mouth

  • Loose teeth

  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing

  • Difficulty wearing dentures

  • A lump in your mouth, tongue, or neck

  • An earache

  • Chronic hoarseness

Tell your dentist or health care provider if you have any of these symptoms. He or she will be able to tell you if they are a sign of cancer. Dentists are specially trained to look for symptoms of cancer in the mouth and throat.

Risk factors

The two most common risk factors for oral cancers are tobacco use—both smoking and using smokeless tobacco—and frequent alcohol use. Besides alcohol and tobacco, these are other risk factors for oral cancer:

  • Prolonged sun exposure. This raises the risk for lip cancer.

  • Advancing age. The risk increases after age 35.

  • Gender. The risk is twice as great if you are a man. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says this increase in risk may be because men are more likely than women to drink and smoke.

  • Infection with HPV (human papillomavirus).

  • Heavy drinking and smoking. The ACS says that the risk for oral cancer may be up to 100 times greater in people who drink or smoke heavily than in those who don't drink or smoke.

You can lower your chances of getting oral or oropharyngeal cancer by avoiding the common risk factors. Some risk factors—like family history of oral or oropharyngeal cancer, age, and gender—can't be avoided, though. Eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, using sunscreen on your lips, and getting regular oral cancer screenings with your dentist can also help lower your risk for oral cancer.