Health Break | Published April 30, 2007 | Written by Aileen S. Galley, ACSW, LSW, administrative director, Cancer Program at Mount Nittany Medical Center, former chair of the Pink Zone Committee

Oral Cancer

Which cancer has a higher rate of lives lost than cervical cancer, Hodgkins disease, brain cancer, liver, testes or skin cancer? The answer may surprise you, but not your dentist. It is oral cancer. One person is diagnosed with oral cancer every hour of every day in the United States.

Oral cancers include those on the lips, the inside lining of the lips and cheeks, the gums, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the floor of the mouth below the tongue, the bony roof of the mouth, and the area behind the wisdom teeth. This region is defined as the oral cavity.

Oropharyngeal cancer is cancer that develops in the part of the throat just behind the mouth, called the oropharynx. The oropharynx begins where the oral cavity stops. It includes the base of tongue, the soft palate, the tonsils and tonsillar pillars, and the side and back wall of the throat.

Eighty percent of patients with oral cancers have a history of tobacco or heavy alcohol use; twenty percent have no easily identifiable risk factor. Occupational sun exposure and a diet low in fruits and vegetables are other risk factors. Human papillomavirus (HPV) that has been linked to cervical cancer may be linked to at least twenty percent of oral cancer cases as well.

Signs that indicate there may be an oral cancer:

  • a sore in the mouth that does not heal

  • pain in the mouth that doesn't go away

  • a persistent lump or thickening in the cheek

  • a persistent white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth

  • a sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat

  • 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

  • a lump or mass in the neck

  • weight loss

  • persistent bad breath

Items on this list could be the result of conditions other than cancer. See a dentist if any of these signs last longer than two weeks. If you do see a dentist regularly, you have most likely received a screening for oral cancer, as it is a standard part of a regular dental check-up.

If you do not have a regular dentist or insurance coverage or if you are a tobacco or alcohol user, Mount Nittany Medical Center is partnering with Tri-County Oral & Facial Surgeons to offer its annual free oral cancer screening.

An experienced doctor will provide an exam, which includes feeling the entire inside of your mouth with a gloved finger and use of a piece of gauze to move the tongue from side-to-side. It is quick and painless. If you would like to learn more about oral cancer or be on the list for the screening, please call oncology clinical nurse specialist, Tara Baney, at 814.231.7005.

Key prevention tips include stopping the use of any tobacco products, reducing alcohol consumption, eating more fruits and vegetables and getting regular oral cancer exams.

The earlier a cancer is found, the better the chances for recovery.

Aileen S. Galley, ACSW, LSW is the Administrative Director of the Penn State Cancer Institute at Mount Nittany Medical Center.