A dentist and a patient are looking at an x-ray

Oral Cancer

Each year about 49,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oral cancer. This type of cancer occurs most commonly in the tongue, cheeks, throat, floor of the mouth, lips and minor salivary glands. Mouth cancers are more common in people over 40, particularly men.

The first sign of oral cancer is often a small red or white spot or sore toward the back of the mouth or under the tongue. This makes it tough to spot.

Oral cancer can also appear as a painless mouth ulcer that does not heal normally. Be aware of any unusual lumps in your mouth or jaw area and any persistent hoarseness. Difficulty or pain while chewing or swallowing are also signs of oral cancer. If any of these symptoms don’t resolve themselves in a short period, schedule an appointment with your dentist.

Historically the death rate associated with oral cancer is particularly high, because it’s usually discovered late in its development. Early detection is key to increasing your chances.

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

The following factors increase your risk for oral cancer:

  • Tobacco and alcohol use: Both are carcinogenic and come in close contact with the lips and mouth
  • Over-exposure to sunlight can also increase the risk of cancer of the lips, especially on the lower lip
  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) which is the main cause of cervical cancer and affects the skin that lines the moist areas of the body
  • A family history of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), the most common type of oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Screening by Your Dentist

As part of your regular twice-yearly office visit, the dentist will conduct a screening for oral cancer. It takes just a few minutes but increases the chance that any potentially cancerous or precancerous lesions will be caught early and successfully treated. Your dentist will carefully inspect the following areas for sores, spots, and lumps:

  • face, neck, lips, and mouth
  • jaw and the side of your neck
  • tongue
  • roof and floor of your mouth
  • back of your throat

Also, be sure to tell your dentist if you’ve noticed symptoms like a sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal, a lump, or pain or numbness anywhere in your mouth or on your lips.

How Treatment for Oral Cancer Affects Your Mouth

Soreness and swelling from surgery can make it uncomfortable to chew and swallow. The removal of larger tumors could also affect your ability to talk as well as you did before the surgery.

Cells in your mouth are sensitive to radiation. Thus, radiation in area of the mouth, neck, or chest can make foods taste bitter or metallic, or give you dry mouth. Other side effects can include:

  • sore throat or mouth
  • tooth decay
  • sore or bleeding gums
  • problems wearing dentures

Chemotherapy slows down the ability of oral tissue to repair itself by making new cells. It can also upset the healthy balance of bacteria in the mouth.

  • painful mouth and gums
  • bleeding in the mouth
  • mouth and lip sores

Enhanced Dental benefits for Oral Cancer

Florida Blue Dental’s Oral Health for Overall Health program provides plan members with oral cancer enhanced dental benefits when enrolled in our program. These benefits have been shown to improve not only oral health, but also help you better manage your condition.

Learn more about the enrollment process.