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Oral Cancer

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer starts in the mouth (oral cavity) and can interfere with the ability to breath, talk, eat, chew or swallow. The oral cavity is easy to examine. When found early, treatment of oral cancer is likely to be successful.

According to the Illinois State Cancer Registry, about 1,480 new cases of oral and pharyngeal cancer will be diagnosed in Illinois in 2008 . Of these, about 1,040 will be in men and about 440 will be in women. About 350 Illinoisans are expected to die of oral and pharyngeal cancer in 2008. Oral cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer in African-American men.

What are the Causes and Risk Factors of Oral Cancer?

Some people with oral cancer do not have any known risk factors and others with several risk factors never develop the disease. Important risk factors are listed below.


About 90 percent of people with oral cancer use tobacco. The risk of developing these cancers increases with the amount smoked or chewed and the duration of the habit. Smokers are six times more likely than nonsmokers to develop these cancers. Smokeless tobacco ("snuff" or chewing tobacco) is associated with cancers of the cheek, gums and inner surface of the lips. Smokeless tobacco increases the risk of these cancers by about 50 times.


Drinking alcohol greatly increases a smoker's risk of developing oral cancer. About 75 percent to 80 percent of all patients with oral cancer drink alcohol. People who drink alcohol but don’t smoke have a higher risk of cancer, if they are heavy drinkers. The combination of tobacco and alcohol is deadly.

Ultraviolet light

More than 30 percent of patients with cancers of the lip have outdoor occupations associated with prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Poor nutrition

A diet low in fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of developing oral cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection

The current studies indicate HPV may contribute to the development of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers in around 20 percent of people.


The likelihood of developing oral and pharyngeal cancer increases with age. Half of all cases are in persons older than age 65; 90 percent are older than age 45.

What are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?

The common symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • sore in the mouth that does not heal (most common symptom)
  • pain in the mouth that does not go away (also very common)
  • persistent lump or thickening in the cheek
  • persistent white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth
  • sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat that does not go away
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth
  • swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw
  • voice changes
  • lump or mass in the neck
  • unintentional weight loss
  • persistent bad breath

These symptoms can be caused by many other conditions. It is important to report any of these symptoms (lasting more than two weeks) to a dentist or physician.

How to Prevent Oral Cancer:

Most oral cancers can be prevented by avoiding risk factors whenever possible.

  • Tobacco and alcohol are the largest risk factors for oral cancer. The best way to prevent this cancer is to never start smoking or using smokeless tobacco. If you use tobacco now, quit. If you drink, reduce alcohol intake. Most oral cancers could be prevented if people did not use tobacco or drink heavily.
  • To avoid getting cancer of the lips from the sun, stay inside or in the shade during the middle of the day, when the sun’s rays are most damaging. Minimize exposure to the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Use lip protection with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 and reapply frequently while outside.
  • Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day and six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, grain, rice, pasta or beans. Eat less high-fat meat, dairy products and processed food.
  • Examine your mouth monthly and see a dentist or doctor if any symptoms occur. At least once a year, ask a doctor or dentist to screen you for oral cancer.