Oral cancer

Oral cancer is any abnormal growth and spreading of cells that occurs in the mouth. Learn about the types of oral cancer, risk factors, prevention and more.

Types of oral cancer

Oral cancer can affect many areas of the mouth. These include the:

  • lips
  • gums
  • tonsils
  • tongue
  • salivary glands
  • back of the throat
  • roof and floor of the mouth
  • inside of the lips and cheeks
  • oropharynx (made up of the tongue, soft palate, tonsils, middle part of the pharynx)

Signs and symptoms of oral cancer

Oral cancer is any abnormal growth and spreading of cells that occurs in the mouth. Learn about the types of oral cancer, risk factors, prevention and more.

See an oral health or other health professional immediately if you have:

  • unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • changes in taste or tongue sensation
  • lumps located on the lips, tongue or neck
  • sores or patches in the mouth that do not heal
  • lumps or changes in the texture or colour of the mouth tissues
  • a sore throat that is persistent and/or difficulty with swallowing
  • dark red or white patches in the mouth, or on your lips or tongue

Risk factors

There are many risk factors linked to developing oral cancer. These include:

Age

Oral cancer can occur at any age, but people over the age of 45 are at higher risk. People who are over the age of 60 have the highest incidence of oral cancer.

Smoking

Smoking or using tobacco products increases the risk of oral cancer, especially if combined with high alcohol consumption. Tobacco products include:

  • cigarettes
  • snuff
  • paan
  • chewing tobacco
  • smokeless tobacco
  • areca nut
  • betel quid

Alcohol

The amount of alcohol consumed and the length of time it is used increases the risk of oral cancers.

HPV

There is more research connecting the HPV infection with oral cancers. The HPV vaccine can protect you against that infection, but only if you are not already infected.

Gender

Men are more susceptible than women to developing oral cancer. In the past, the ratio of incidence of oral cancer was 6 to 1 for men compared to women. However, this ratio is narrowing and is now closer to 2 to 1.

Diet

A diet low in fruits and vegetables puts you at greater risk of oral cancer. Fruits and vegetables have a protective factor and are believed to reduce the risk of oral cancers.

Poor oral health

Studies show that people with poor oral health have an increased risk of developing oral cancer.

Sun exposure

People who are in the sun a lot have an increased risk of developing lip cancer.

Prevention

Prevention is key. To help prevent oral cancer, you should:

  • brush and floss your teeth daily
  • see an oral health professional for a regular checkup and a cleaning
  • use lip balm with UV protection when you are outside and exposed to the sun
  • use of a condom if you are sexually active to help reduce your risk of HPV infection
  • eat a healthy diet according to Canada's Food Guides, including plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • reduce alcohol consumption
    • quitting (or reducing) your alcohol use lowers your risk of developing oral cancer
  • quit smoking and using tobacco products
    • quitting (or reducing) your tobacco use lowers your risk of developing oral cancer

Early detection

Oral cancer can often be treated successfully if caught at an early stage. If not treated early, the cancer can spread to other parts of the body. At this point, it becomes more difficult to treat.

Understanding your risk for oral cancer is an important part of prevention. Have a regular oral cancer screening done by an oral health professional or other health professional to catch oral cancer early.

Oral cancer self-assessment quiz

The self-assessment quiz is intended to help you assess your personal risk for developing oral cancer. Knowing that you are at increased risk can help you develop a plan to make healthier choices.

Indicate 'yes' or 'no' to each of these questions.

  1. Are you over the age of 45?
  2. Are you Male?
  3. Do you have oral HPV?
  4. Are you sexually active and not regularly tested for sexually transmitted infections?
  5. Do you use tobacco products?
  6. Do you drink a lot of alcohol and have you done so consistently for a long period of time?
  7. Are your lips exposed to the sun on a regular basis, without protection?
  8. Is your diet low in fruits and vegetables?

The more risk factors you have replied "yes" to in the questionnaire, the higher your risk of developing oral cancer.

You should take a few moments to check your mouth for the signs and symptoms of oral cancer. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, speak to an oral health provider or other healthcare provider right away. Be sure to ask for an oral cancer screening at a dental or medical clinic.

Common myths about oral cancer

There are still many myths about oral cancer. Some of the most common are:

  • only people who smoke or who drink a lot of alcohol or both are at risk of developing oral cancer
    • There is a higher risk for people who smoke and/or drink a lot of alcohol. This risk is even higher if you do both. However, about 25% of oral cancers occur in people who don't smoke or drink alcohol.
  • only older adults should get screened for oral cancer
    • Oral cancer can develop at any age. Incidence of oral cancer rises steeply at age 45 and peaks at 60 years of age.
  • the incidence of oral cancer is lower than certain other cancers
    • The number of new oral cancer cases and related deaths is relatively low compared to prostate, breast and colorectal cancer. Yet, it is almost 3 times higher than for cervical cancer and almost double that of liver cancer.

For Quick Facts and more information on oral cancer, visit the Canadian Cancer Society web site.

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