Celebrate Oral Cancer Awareness Month This April

Dentistry Today


April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, celebrated by a coalition of oral health organizations to educate patients and clinicians alike about the prevalence of the disease and the importance of early diagnosis in improving survival rates.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, someone dies of oral or oropharyngeal cancer every hour of every day, 365 days a year. Also, 54,000 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed this year, and 43% of them won’t survive longer than five years.

The death rate remains particularly high because these cancers are routinely discovered late in their development. Many patients who do survive suffer long-term problems such as severe facial disfigurement or difficulties with eating and speaking.

Regular oral cancer examinations performed by oral health professionals remain the best method for detecting oral cancer in its early stages, said the Oral Cancer Foundation, which is promoting its Check Your Mouth initiative as part of the campaign.

Check Your Mouth encourages the public to regularly check themselves for signs and symptoms of oral cancer between dental visits and to see a dental professional if these signs do not improve or disappear after two or three weeks.

Signs and symptoms of oral cancer, which is predominantly caused by tobacco and alcohol usage, may include:

  • Any sore or ulceration that does not heal within 14 days
  • A red, white, or black discoloration of the soft tissues of the mouth
  • Any abnormality that bleeds easily when touched (friable)
  • A lump or hard spot in the tissue, usually on the border of the tongue (induration)
  • Tissue raised above that which surrounds it; a growth (exophytic)
  • A sore under a denture, which even after adjustment of the denture, that does not heal
  • A lump or thickening that develops in the mouth
  • A painless, firm, fixated lump felt on the outside of the neck that has been there for at least two weeks
  • Symptoms such as these that are persistent and do not resolve

Signs and symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which may persist longer than two to three weeks, may include:

  • Hoarseness or sore throat that does not resolve within a few weeks
  • A swollen tonsil on just one side, which is usually painless
  • A painless, firm, fixated lump felt on the outside of the neck that has been there for at least two weeks
  • A persistent cough that does not resolve after many days
  • Difficulty swallowing, or a sensation that food is getting caught in the throat
  • An earache on one side (unilateral) that persists for more than a few days
  • Symptoms such as these that are persistent and do not resolve

The Oral Cancer Foundation advises patients to call their dentist right away if there are any immediate concerns.

Research has identified factors that may contribute to the development of oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Historically, those at an especially high risk include heavy drinkers and smokers over the age of 50. But today, the cancer also is occurring more frequently in nonsmoking people due to HPV-16, the virus most commonly associated with cervical cancer.

HPV-16, which is sexually transmitted, is related to the increasing incidence of oropharyngeal cancer, most commonly involving lymphoid tissue occurring in the tonsils or the base of the tongue. Approximately 99% of people who develop an HPV oral infection will clear the virus on their own. But in about 1% of these individuals, the immune system will not clear the virus, which will lay dormant for decades before potentially causing a cancer. This occurs mostly in non-smoking populations composed or males four to one over females.

The Oral Cancer Foundation is encouraging people to schedule oral cancer exams during Oral Cancer Awareness Month in April and to ask their dentists to make the exam part of all of their future dental checkups.

In addition to the Oral Cancer Foundation, organizations celebrating Oral Cancer Awareness Month include:

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