A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Shelley Shearer: Oral cancer may be more common than you think; self-check and consult your dentist


There are nearly 50,000 new cases of oral cancer in the United States each year, accounting for three percent of all cancer diagnoses. Most are discovered in a dental office.

Oral cancer is caused by the uncontrolled growth and reproduction of cells in some regions of the mouth. It can occur inside the cheeks, under the middle and front of the tongue, or on the tissue lining of the mouth or gum. That’s why it is worthwhile to ensure that people know the symptoms, causes and risk factors.

Dr. Shelley Shearer

Early detection and treatment of oral cancer can help prevent the cancer from developing further or spreading to other areas. Be sure to tell your dentist is you have experienced any of the following for more than two weeks:

• difficulty chewing or swallowing
• a lump or sore area in the mouth, throat or on the lips
• a white or red patch in the mouth
• difficulty moving the tongue or jaw
• unexpected weight loss
• a sore or ulcer that does not heal or bleeds
• tenderness, pain, or lumps anywhere in the mouth or on the lips.

These are not always definitive signs of oral cancer and may be caused by other conditions, such as an allergy or an infection. But it’s better to check out these occurrences before it’s too late.

Patients often ask what causes oral cancer so they can try to avoid it. Here are some of the main causes and risk factors:

• Tobacco and alcohol use: Any form of tobacco use involves carcinogenic substances entering the mouth, which significantly increases the risk for oral cancer. Excessive alcohol use can also increase the risk.

• Age: The risk of oral cancer increases with age, with the average age of diagnosis at 62 years old.

• Human papillomavirus (HPV): This is a  sexually transmitted infection that has strong associations with several forms of oral cancer.

• Sun exposure: The sun emits rays that can burn the lips and trigger the development of oral cancer.

Gender: Males are more than twice as likely to develop oral cancer than women. Researchers have yet to discover a reason why.

As with most other cancers, it is not always possible to prevent oral cancer. Some risk factors for oral cancer, such as being male or aging, are not preventable. However, consider some lifestyle factors that can reduce the risk of oral cancer such as:

• avoiding tobacco
• consuming alcohol in moderation
• maintaining a healthy diet
• using screen around the mouth and a lip balm on the lips when exposed to the sun
• exercising regularly
• maintaining good oral hygiene by brushing and flossing twice a day
• regularly visiting a dentist for check-ups.

Conduct Your Own Self-Check

Just as women take time for a monthly breast self-exam, those with oral cancer risk factors should conduct their own self-check.

First, look at and feel your head and neck in a mirror. Do the left and right sides of the face have the same shape? Are there any lumps, bumps, or swellings that are only on one side of your face? Also view the skin on your face for changes in color or size, sores, moles or growths. To check the neck, press along the sides and front of the neck for tenderness or lumps.

Lips and cheeks can reveal much as well. Pull your lower lip down and check for sores or color changes. Then use your thumb and forefinger to feel the lip for lumps, bumps, or changes in texture. Repeat this on your upper lip. Examine your inner cheek for red, white, or dark patches. Put your index finger on the inside of your cheek and your thumb on the outside. Gently squeeze and roll your both sides of your cheeks between your fingers to check for any lumps or areas of tenderness.

Often the roof of the mouth is an indicator that something is off. Tilt your head back and open your mouth wide to look for any lumps and see if the color is different than usual. Touch the roof of your mouth to feel for lumps. Extend your tongue and look at the top surface, sides and underneath for lumps, swelling or changes in color and texture.

Tell your dentist if you suspect anything unusual in your mouth. Catching oral cancer early can save time, money and most importantly, your life.

Dr. Shelley Shearer is a graduate of the University of Louisville Dental School and Founder of Shearer Family and Cosmetic Dentistry in Florence, the largest all-female dental practice in Northern Kentucky.


Related Posts

Leave a Comment