Oral Cancer Screening

Oral cancer is a silent killer, claiming the life of one person every 24 hours. This disease is defined as cancer occurring anywhere in the mouth or throat, including the lips, cheeks, tongue, sinuses, pharynix, and the floor of the mouth. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which are more easily treated in their earliest stages before they have metastasized to another location. Treatment for oral cancer may include surgery to remove a primary tumor, as well as chemotherapy or radiation. Left untreated, oral cancer can quickly spread to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body, significantly diminishing a patient’s long-term prognosis.

How Common is Oral Cancer?

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, more than 48,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer in the U.S. every year. Although the disease is more common than many people realize, it tends to receive less public attention than other types of cancers due to a lower prevalence of the disease and the late stages in which oral cancer is typically diagnosed.

Although anyone can develop the disease, oral cancer is more common in certain people groups than others. These include men and individuals over age 40, as well as people who use tobacco or regularly drink alcohol. Oral cancer is also more prevalent in people with an existing history of head or neck cancer.

Despite improved screening options, the rates with which oral cancer has been diagnosed have not improved significantly in many decades. This could be contributed in part to low awareness about the disease, as well as the discreet symptoms oral cancer produces in its early stages. Unfortunately, oral cancer often goes unnoticed and undiagnosed until it has progressed to more serious stages of disease.

How Serious is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is a very serious diagnosis. The 5-year survival rate is low, with only a little over half of oral cancer patients surviving more than 60 months after the initial diagnosis. Since cancer can develop in the mouth without producing any pain or other signs of malignancy, it may go untreated for long periods of time. Eventually, the cancer can spread to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body, making it much more difficult to treat than a primary cancer that has not yet spread.

Even patients who have been successfully treated for oral cancer continue to maintain a high risk of a second primary tumor. In fact, people who have had a previous oral cancer diagnosis are 20 times more likely to have a subsequent diagnosis even after treatment. This heightened risk can last for many years, making the need for regular screenings an important part of any oral cancer survivor’s life.

Importance of Early Detection

As with many types of cancer, a patient’s prognosis is very closely associated with the stage of the disease at which it is diagnosed, as well as the location at which the primary tumor is detected. For example, lip cancer diagnosed before it has spread to any other area of the mouth or body typically carries a high five-year survival rate of 93 percent; but the survival rate drops to 52 percent once it has metastasized.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 3 out of 4 patients diagnosed with tongue cancer and cancer affecting the floor of the mouth will survive at least 5 years after an early-stage diagnosis. Later stages – when most mouth cancers are diagnosed – carry a much poorer prognosis. A person with late-stage mouth cancer originating in the floor of the mouth has just a 20 percent chance of surviving 5 years with treatment.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

It is important to note that oral cancer tends to produce few or no symptoms at all in its earliest stages. That is why screening is so important – especially for people at heightened risk of the disease. However, there are some symptoms that could indicate the presence of malignant oral cancer cells. These include:

  • A sore that will not heal
  • Discoloration of the lip or mouth tissues
  • White patches
  • Red patches
  • A lump or swollen area of the mouth or throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Oral bleeding

The presence of one or more of these symptoms does not necessarily indicate cancer, but it does require an immediate professional oral health screening. Furthermore, the above list of oral cancer symptoms is not an exhaustive one; if you notice any unusual changes in your mouth or throat, including unexplained pain, contact our office to schedule an appointment right away.