15 Questions and Answers About Oral Cancer and How Dentists Can Help
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15 Questions and Answers About Oral Cancer and How Dentists Can Help in Early Detection

April 12, 2022

Oral cancer is expected to afflict 54,000 Americans this year alone, with cases accounting for roughly 3% of all cancer diagnoses. The American Cancer Society estimates that 11,230 will die from the disease this 2022 alone.

Fortunately, early detection with the help of dentists can help mouth cancer patients survive this tragic disease.

What Is Oral Cancer and What Causes It?

Oral cancer or mouth cancer happens when a tumor grows in some parts of the mouth, including the tongue, cheeks, and lips. When cancer cells mutate, their cell DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) changes, causing cells to act abnormally.

Instead of dying when they should, as healthy cells would, abnormal cells continue to grow and multiply. The abnormal cells then infect their neighboring healthy cells and eventually form tumors.

While routine dental exams could help catch signs, misinformation can make it difficult to detect and treat oral cancer early. Educating your patients about this deadly disease can help save their lives. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions that can help you raise awareness about the disease.

15 Questions and Answers on Oral Cancer

Is Oral Cancer the Same As Oropharyngeal Cancer?

Although seemingly alike, there is a clear distinction between these two: the area first affected by cancer. Oral cancer starts in the mouth. Meanwhile, oropharyngeal cancer begins in the middle part of the throat.

What Are the Different Types of Mouth Cancer?

Oral cancers can be categorized into two: (1) based on the area where they began ( lip, jaw, cheek, and tongue cancers); and (2) based on the type of cells which were first infected.

With that said, here are the different types of mouth cancer.

  • Lymphoma

    This type of oral cancer begins in lymphocytes which are cells that fight off infection. When patients have this type of cancer, their lymphocytes change and often grow out of control. Since both the tonsils and base of the tongue have lymphoid tissue, cancer manifests in their mouths.

  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma

    Squamous cells usually line the throat and mouth. This type of oral cancer develops when these cells mutate and become abnormal, spreading to nearby lymph nodes, bones, or even distant organs.

  • Minor Salivary Gland

    Salivary glands found in and around the mouth produce saliva. Saliva contains enzymes that aid in the digestion of food and antibodies that protect your mouth from infection. Salivary gland cancer develops when abnormal cells grow in the salivary glands or the ducts that drain them.

  • Mucosal Melanoma

    Melanoma grows in the cells that produce pigment for skin color.

    This kind of oral cancer is known as “chameleonic” or well-hidden but highly malignant (cancerous). Usually painless yet rapidly growing, it is often detected too late in its course. Due to the lack of symptoms, patients are often only diagnosed once lesions appear or when cancer has already spread.

  • Sarcomas

    Sarcoma grows from abnormalities in bone, muscle cartilage, and other tissues. Odontogenic sarcomas, in particular, come from tissues and cells involved in the development of teeth.

What Is the Most Common Type of Oral Cancer?

Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of mouth cancer, accounting for 90% of all cases. This type of oral cancer usually develops on the tongue, lips, and floor of the mouth.

In some cases, these show up in what may appear like a perfectly normal mucosa (lining of the mouth). But in other cases, malignant tumors are preceded by premalignant lesions.

What Are the Two Most Common Causes of Oral Cancer?

Scientists have yet to determine the exact cause of cell mutations that cause mouth cancer, but they pointed out some risk factors that increase the risk. The top two most commonly identified were:

  • Excessive use of any tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco)
  • Excessive drinking of alcohol

What Are the Early Warning Signs of Oral Cancer?

When it comes to mouth cancer, early detection is crucial. Here are some symptoms to watch out for:

  • Loose teeth
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent swelling or soreness in the mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Numbness in the mouth

How Can You Spot Oral Cancer?

Apart from the symptoms mentioned above, here’s another list of more visible signs that can alert you to a possible case of mouth cancer:

  • Oral wounds that don’t heal
  • Red or white spots in and around the mouth
  • Puss-filled sores in the mouth that don’t heal
  • Painless but hard lump near the back teeth
  • Tissue turning grayish
  • A bumpy spot near the front teeth

Is Oral Cancer Curable?

A cancer diagnosis can be frightening, but mouth cancer is highly treatable if caught early enough. The best thing dentists can do is educate their patients on the symptoms, risk factors, and available treatment options.

Can You Survive Oral Cancer?

Many things come into play when it comes to surviving oral cancer. While it’s impossible to predict how long a person with cancer will live, the likelihood of surviving is very high.

These statistics can help gauge the average person’s chances of surviving.

  • Sixty-six percent of people with oral cancer will survive five years after their diagnosis. This number would jump to 85% if they were diagnosed early on.
  • If cancer has spread to other body parts, this number will drop to only 40%.

How Long Does It Take for Mouth Cancer to Develop?

Mouth cancers usually take years to develop. Most people only discover having it after the age of 55. However, younger people who develop oral cancer are typically linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can infect the mouth and throat.

Does Oral Cancer Spread Fast?

Like any other type of cancer, mouth cancer is extremely unpredictable since many factors affect the metastasis or the development of second malignant growth in every patient. But it is important to note that the most common type of oral cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, tends to spread quickly.

Would My Dentist Know If I Have Oral Cancer?

Dentists are the first line of defense against oral cancer. Checking for early signs of mouth cancer, such as suspicious-looking growths and gum discoloration, is crucial for a dentist’s job.

The American Dental Association has guidelines on evaluating potentially malignant disorders in the oral cavity that dentists can follow. Apart from examining patients’ teeth, dentists are expected to thoroughly examine patients’ gingivae (gums), the inside of their cheeks, and tongue.

If dentists find something suspicious, they can refer patients for testing and further diagnosis. Usually, dentists refer patients to a laboratory where they can undergo a procedure called a biopsy. Specialists will then collect a small sample of cells from the affected area with a scalpel or a laser to determine if the abnormality is malignant or not.

Dentists always discuss the problems and possible solutions with patients, especially if patients need to get a second opinion from cancer specialists.

Dentists must remind patients of regular clinic visits or at least once a year for routine checkups.

What Procedure Can a Dentist Do for a Person With Oral Cancer?

Dentists can work closely with oral surgeons and oncologists to help treat a person with oral cancer. Based on the patient’s stage of cancer and the location of the lesion or tumor, these experts will then recommend the best course of treatment (surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three) for their patients.

The first step is to remove the malignant tumor from the patient’s mouth. Below are some treatment options that you can recommend to your patients.

Treatment Options

  • Surgery
    Malignant cells and tissues surrounding the affected area will be scraped off diligently to remove cancer. However, larger tumors would require the partial removal of the jawbone or tongue, depending on the location and extent of cancer.
  • Radiation Therapy
    Radiation therapy is a standard procedure for cancers. This procedure involves external beam radiation to eliminate cancer cells. Surgery usually happens before radiation for patients in the late stages of oral cancer. However, medical professionals typically recommend radiation before surgery for patients in the early stage of cancer.
  • Chemotherapy
    This is a common way of killing cancer cells by exposing them to chemicals. Radiation and chemotherapy are often used together to boost the efficacy of both treatments. Breakthrough treatments in cancer often results in this.

Can Dentists Treat Oral Cancer?

Some dentists specializing in mouth, face, and jaw surgeries can perform oral cancer surgery and stop its spread. They are called oral and maxillofacial surgeons. These dentists often work with a team of doctors, including oncologists and reconstructive surgeons, to remove the malignant tumor.

Do Dentists Miss Signs of Oral Cancer?

Let’s face it. As humans, even those in the medical field can make mistakes in diagnosing and detecting early signs of cancer.

For dentists: Keep in mind to trust your judgment, but don’t put too much stock in your initial diagnosis. When it comes to biopsies, submit a 5-mm piece of tissue at least 1 to 2mm deep. This way, you aren’t asking too much of your pathologist by giving them insufficient tissue samples.

Also, consider that you may have to submit additional biopsies of the area. If the pathologist’s diagnosis doesn’t match your suspicions, have another pathologist review the slides or repeat the biopsy of the lesion in a different location.

Here are a few things that dentists need to be vigilant about when diagnosing potential cases of oral cancer:

  • Patients with refractory periodontitis who do not respond to therapy should have their periodontal tissue tested. This is especially true if a person engages in risky behaviors like smoking or drinking excessively.
  • Teeth in good health don’t fall out of their sockets. If this is the case, a biopsy of the soft tissue surrounding the tooth and imaging studies is necessary.
  • A lesion may not be visible, but that does not mean it does not exist. Patients who report pain, numbness, and tingling may have an undiagnosed lesion on the cranial nerve.

How Can You Detect Oral Cancer at Home?

Are your patients worried that they or someone in their family has oral cancer? Here’s how they can do an initial self-exam in the comforts of your home with just one tool: a mirror.

  1. Check face and neck for any signs of sores and swelling
  2. Watch out for patchy and bumpy cheeks.
  3. Feel around lips for bumps.
  4. Assess the color and texture of your tongue.
  5. Check for any discoloration on your palate.

Be at the Frontlines in the Fight Against Oral Cancer

With the rising incidence of oral cancer, dental health professionals should continue to raise awareness and save lives through early detection and prevention. This disease does not have to be a death sentence for those diagnosed. Help detect early stages of oral cancer with top-of-the-line oral cancer screening equipment.


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