Oral Cancer: What Are the Symptoms, Is It Curable?

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Dental care professionals will argue that maintaining good oral hygiene is essential to maintaining good overall health, and they are mostly right. You may find it alarming that, based on a 2012 survey by the American Dental Association, many people are unaware of the importance of practicing good oral hygiene and how it is connected to a person’s overall health.

There are a variety of conditions that present oral signs and symptoms. The mouth is basically a window to what is going on with the other parts of our bodies. The oral cavity is helpful in detecting early symptoms and signs of any systemic disease – diseases that affects not just one part, but the whole body. In fact, the Academy of General Dentistry states that 90% of systemic diseases create oral symptoms and signs. Likewise, the American Dental Association links poor oral health to heart disease, diabetes, pregnancy complications, and more.

Poor oral hygiene habits may lead your mouth to becoming a source of infection. For example, gingivitis, if left untreated, will cause periodontitis, which is a lot more severe. An even more serious gum infection is called trench mouth or necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis.

Mouth bacteria does not normally enter the bloodstream. However, invasive dental treatments, as well as injuries caused by improper brushing or flossing technique will create a point of entry for bacteria. A strong immune system can easily handle oral bacteria entering the bloodstream, but if your immune system is compromised due to certain complications, you may develop further infection in other body parts.

Considering the risks involved in poor oral hygiene habits, it is important that we observe proper oral care and always seek the advice of a dental care professional for instructions and recommendations.

Now let’s talk about what all of this has to do with cancer.

Cancer Overview

Cancer is a malignant disease characterized by an abnormal growth of cells. There are several types, the most common of which include breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, prostate cancer, melanoma or skin cancer, bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney cancer, endometrial cancer, leukemia, pancreatic cancer, thyroid cancer, and liver cancer. Symptoms may vary depending on the type. Treatment includes chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. The efficacy or response to treatment may vary from person to person as no two individuals are exactly alike.

Prognosis, the likely course of a disease, given to cancer patients is an average of 5 years with a survival rate of 66% in the US. As of 2015, cancer is responsible for 8.8 million deaths worldwide according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Oral Cancer

As mentioned above, cancer is an uncontrollable growth of cells. These growths invade and damage the surrounding tissue. Oral cancer is one such type of cancer that occurs within the oral cavity. This may appear as a growth or a sore in your mouth that does not go away. These malignant growths can occur in the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, and pharynx (commonly referred to as the throat).

What are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?

It is important that oral cancer must be identified as early as possible. Complicating this process is the fact that early signs of oral cancer may be mistaken for other problems. It is always important to see an oral care professional as soon as possible to help identify any suspicious growths or lesions in your mouth.

The National Institute of Dental Craniofacial Research states that over 50% of those in the United States survive oral cancer after five years. (4) Prognosis is generally positive if the condition is caught in its early stages where the response to treatment is fairly good.

As mentioned, signs and symptoms may happen anywhere inside the mouth. Early detection is also crucial in overcoming this disease; it is important to visit your oral care professional if certain symptoms persist for more than two weeks. These include:

  1. Swollen or thickened lesions, bumps or lumps, crusts or rough spots on the gums, lips, tongue, and other parts in the mouth.
  2. Velvety red, white, or speckled patches inside the mouth.
  3. Unexplained loss of feeling, numbness, pain or tenderness around the face, neck, and mouth.
  4. Sores on the neck, face, and mouth that would not go away. These lesions will bleed easily when struck.
  5. A feeling of something being stuck at the back of the throat or sore throat.
  6. Hoarseness or change of voice.
  7. Difficulty swallowing due to discomfort.
  8. Ear and jaw pain.
  9. Changes in how the dentures and teeth fit together, sometimes loosening of a tooth.
  10. Dramatic and sudden weight loss.
  11. Bad breath that does not go away using any oral hygiene methods.

If you notice any of these signs and symptoms, contact a healthcare professional immediately for proper course of action and care.

Causes and risk factors of oral cancer

As noted, cancer results when cell growth goes rapidly out of control due to a genetic mutation. If left untreated, cancer may spread to other parts of the body in a process called metastasis. Oral cancers typically start in the squamous cells that line the lips and the inside of the mouth. The exact cause of this genetic mutation is unknown but certain risk factors will increase the chances of the development of this disease.

Men are twice as susceptible to oral cancer than women, according to the American Cancer Society. On average, these cancers typically occur at the age of 62. However, cancer may sometimes occur in younger people depending on lifestyle choices and risk factors. Common risk factors for oral cancer are the following:

  1. Tobacco is the single most dominant risk factor for oral cancer, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Smokers are far more at risk of developing oral cancers than nonsmokers. Tobacco damages the cells that line the oral cavity and throat, which triggers the cells to grow more rapidly in order to repair this damage. Research shows that DNA-changing chemicals in tobacco are linked to increased likelihood of oral cancer.
  2. Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight and tanning beds are also known to cause cancer on the lips and other parts of the skin. Lip cancers are common for people who work outdoors or have prolonged exposure to the sun. Luckily, increased awareness of the damaging effects of these tanning beds and the use of sunscreen has resulted in the decline of cancers from overexposure to ultraviolet radiation.
  3. New research suggests that a meat-heavy diet (particularly processed meats) can lead to an increased risk for developing cancer. Generally, an unhealthy diet and lifestyle are also risk factors for developing any type of cancer.
  4. THuman Papillomavirus or HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus. The same virus is also responsible for cervical cancers and a certain strain, called HPV16 has been implicated to cause oral cancer. Nonsmokers who develop oral cancer likely have been infected with HPV.
  5. South Asians who habitually chew betel quid are also susceptible to developing oral cancer. Betel quid contains high amounts of carcinogens even without tobacco. A staggering 95% occurrence among betel quid chewers was discovered on a recent controlled study.

Treatment and Prevention

Cancer treatments will vary depending on the type, location, and stage of its development. There are several treatments and these include:


Treatment for early stages of cancer usually involves surgical removal of the cancerous growth. Nearby affected tissues are also taken out to reduce the risk of recurrence or relapse.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells or slow down their growth by damaging their DNA. A cancer cell with damaged DNA that is beyond repair will either stop dividing or die and then break down and be removed from the body.Radiation therapy does not kill cancer cells instantly. It will take several sessions until the DNA of the cancer cells become damaged enough to die. Cancer cells will then keep dying for weeks or months after radiation therapy.

There are two types of radiation therapy – external and internal. External beam radiation therapy involves the use of a machine that emits radiation at the cancer site. Internal radiation therapy involves the placement of a radiation source inside your body near the cancer site. This radiation source comes in the form of radioactive implants or capsules.


One of the most common treatments of cancer is chemotherapy. This involves the use of drugs that specifically target cancer cells that are either introduced orally or through an intravenous line. While surgery and radiation therapy are local treatments, chemotherapy works throughout the entire body. Chemotherapy can kill cells that have metastasized to other parts of the body away from the primary cancer site.


The goal of these treatments is to make sure that the cancer goes away and never grows back. However, there is no 100% certainty that it works out that way. Hence, doctors never use the word “cure” as each individual has their own response to each mode of treatment and there is always a risk of relapse. It also will take years to know if an individual is really “cured.”


  1. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/767056
  2. https://www.mnhospitals.org/quality-patient-safety/quality-patient-safety-improvement-topics/oral-health
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5388903/
  4. https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/oral-cancer
  5. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
  6. https://oralcancerfoundation.org/understanding/tobacco/tobacco-forms-types/
  7. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1600-0714.1995.tb01132.x

Kay is an SEO Specialist and Content Writer by profession who loves to write about health, particularly focusing on dentistry. She is passionate about creating quality content in order to share information that can improve overall health.

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