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Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer - Symptoms and Signs

Each year in the United States, an estimated 54,000 people will be diagnosed with oral and oropharyngeal cancers. The survival rate is around 81% if these cancers are diagnosed sooner rather than later, but as it is normally only discovered during the later stages of the illness, the 5-year survival rate is around 45%. The physical devastation of these cancers cannot be understated, which is why early detection is so critical. Oral and oropharyngeal cancers can be easily treated with little recurrence when detected in its early stages. While many patients may be unaware, his or her dental professional is performing an oral cancer exam/screening at routine hygiene appointments. For this reason alone, it is essential to stay current with these appointments. Denture patients should strongly consider visiting the dentist yearly if for no other reason. 

For patients that are diagnosed with malignant forms of these cancers, the facial deformities related to the removal of the cancer can be significant. Upon removal of the malignancy, chemotherapy and/or radiation may be required. Both of these treatments cause considerable (and undesirable) side effects. The side effects of head and neck radiation often permanently damage the salivary glands leaving the patient to suffer with chronic dry mouth indefinitely. Chemotherapy generally causes large and painful sores throughout the mouth which make eating, drinking, and everyday living very uncomfortable. 

Signs and Symptoms

Patients with oral and oropharyngeal cancers may or may not notice obvious symptoms such as pain or a sore throat. The most common sites for these cancers are on the tongue, lip, or floor of the mouth. Fortunately, these are sites that patients are able to see on themselves if they know what to look for. The mouth has some very confusing anatomy, to say the least! The key is to look for white or red patches that don't go away within 2 weeks. If you notice one of these symptoms, it is important to have your dental professional evaluate the area for a possible biopsy and/or excision.  

Risk Factors

  • Gender (males are at higher risk)
  • Tobacco use(accounts for 85% of cases),
  • Alcohol use
  • Tobacco and alcohol use together compounds the risk!
  • HPV
  • Race (Blacks are at an increased risk than Whites)
  • Age (over 45 has an increased risk, but the average age of new diagnoses is 63)
  • Prolonged sun exposure(lips are one of the primary sites for oral cancer)
  • Fair skin 

Here at Dr. King’s Family and Cosmetic Dentistry, we take screening of oral and oropharyngeal cancers very seriously. While the patient is often unaware, an oral cancer screening is performed on each patient during routine dental appointments. It is not uncommon for Dr. King to exercise added caution in screening his patients. We are able to perform both brush biopsies as well as excisional ones when possible pathology is suspected. If you are concerned about a spot that you feel may be abnormal, we strongly encourage you to call our office at (757) 464-6228 so that Dr. King can evaluate it. 

Remember, early detection is key! The best way to ensure early detection is with regular visits to your dentist!