Each year, approximately 40,000 Americans are diagnosed with some form of oral cancer. Of those 40,000, roughly 43 percent will be dead within five years of receiving their diagnosis. This places the death rate from oral cancer at a higher percentage than other forms of the disease that receive greater national attention, such as lymphoma, cervical cancer, testicular cancer, skin cancer, and thyroid cancer.

The reason oral cancer has such a high mortality rate isn’t due to the disease being particularly hard to detect, but comes from how late in its development oral cancer symptoms are generally discovered. By the point most realize they are exhibiting oral cancer symptoms, the cancer has already metastasized to another part of the body. Fortunately, when oral cancer symptoms are detected at an early stage, most patients have an excellent chance of beating the disease through treatment.

Warning Signs and Potential Risk Factors

Early detection is the key to beating nearly any form of cancer. But to detect a cancer at an early stage, you need to know the early warning signs of the disease:


  • Oral cancer generally starts as a small white or red discoloration or sore located somewhere on the inside of the mouth.
  • A shifting of the teeth might occur that can change the way your teeth fit together. This can manifest as your teeth becoming crooked or when gaps begin to appear between your teeth.
  • You may develop sores that do not heal and bleed easily.
  • Your cheeks, lips, or gums may become discolored.
  • You may experience persistent pain, tenderness, or a lack of feeling anywhere on the lips or in the mouth.
  • You may also experience problems chewing, swallowing, or speaking.
  • Lumps, rough spots, and areas of the mouth that form a crust or begin to erode are additional early signs of oral cancer.

Potential risk factors for oral cancer can include frequent prolonged exposure to the sun and smoking in conjuncture with the use of alcohol. However, roughly 25 percent of all oral cancer patients had no known risk factors prior to their diagnosis.



Your dentist should conduct an oral cancer screening each time you visit the office for a routine checkup or cleaning. Since the early signs of oral cancer symptoms can easily resemble harmless cuts, sores, and lesions, you need the trained eye of your dentist to sort out what could be potentially troublesome. If your dentist becomes concerned about something they discover during an exam, your dentist could elect to test the area with a brush test, which collects cells from the area that are then sent off to a lab for testing. If the test comes back positive, the lesion may need to be surgically removed. Unfortunately, if you’re one of the millions of Americans who avoid visiting the dentist, you will not receive the kind of early screening that is imperative when trying to catch this disease during a treatable stage.


Timothy Lemke writes about health for the blog of Dr. Dixon, a dentist in Longview, Washington at Smiles Family Dental.

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