Oral Cancer: Risk Factors and Symptoms

The National Cancer Institute reports that more than 21,000 men and more than 9,000 women in the United States alone are diagnosed with oral cancer each year. The institute defines oral cancer as any cancer in the oral cavity, consisting of the mouth and lips, and in the oropharynx, which is the part of the throat at the back of the mouth.

What Causes Oral Cancer?

Doctors don’t always know where oral cancer originates in each patient. There are, however, certain risk factors that research has identified that make some people more likely to develop these cancers than others. Some of these include:

Alcohol and Tobacco

  • According to the National Cancer Institute, most oral cancers are caused by tobacco use. Although some people believe only smoking cigarettes causes oral cancer, cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco can all increase one’s oral cancer risk.

Human Papillomavirus

  • The HPV virus has made headlines recently due to new research showing a growing number of oral cancer diagnoses consistent with the transmission of the virus. Sexual contact is believed to be the main source of infection. According to the CDC, 80 percent of Americans will contract HPV at some point in their lifetime, but most of these infections will clear up on their own and in many cases go completely unnoticed.

Exposure to Sun

  • Harmful rays from the sun are one of the most common causes of cancers of the lips, according to the National Cancer Institute. This exposure to the sun places smokers and tobacco users at even higher risk for cancer of the lips.

Other Factors

  • Many other risk factors exist for oral cancers such as a personal history of oral cancer, diet and lifestyle. The more risk factors that affect a person, the more likely they are to develop oral cancer in some form.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Dr. Kevin Pollock, DDS, M.S., of Pinnacle Oral Surgery Specialists believes one of the biggest obstacles to successful treatment of oral cancer is the amount of time between symptom development and diagnosis.

“Some of the most common symptoms of oral cancer may not be painful at all,”  he said, “so many people brush them off for a long time before they realize it could be something worth getting looked at.”

Things to watch for include:

  • White or red patches in the mouth
  • Sores on the lip or in the mouth that don’t heal on their own after a few weeks
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing, speaking or breathing
  • Chronic earache
  • Numbness of mouth, lips or chin

Further adding to the complication of diagnosis is that many of these symptoms can also be signs of much less severe health complications. This can lead to misdiagnosis, which prolongs the time before treatment to stop the cancer begins.

Diagnosing Oral Cancer

Oral surgeons like Pollock routinely perform oral pathology biopsies to test suspicious lesions to determine whether they are benign or malignant.

A benign tumor is rarely life-threatening and typically doesn’t grow back after removal. In addition, benign tumors don’t usually invade surrounding tissues or spread to other parts of the body. Malignant tumors, on the other hand, can be life-threatening and may grow back after removal. Malignant tumors can spread to other parts of the body and damage tissues and organs in the surrounding areas.