5 myths and facts about oral cancer

February 21, 2020 | by Mohammed Azeem, MD

Cancer that develops in the mouth (oral cavity) and throat (oropharynx) are the deadliest diseases of the mouth.

The Oral Cancer Foundation reports that the “heightened death rate related to oral cancer is due to the fact the cancer is typically found in its later stages of development, most likely when the disease has already begun to spread to lymph nodes in the neck.”

Detecting and treating oral cancer as early as possible is critical, but myths about the disease can make early detection difficult. Regular dental checkups are a first line of defense against oral cancer. Also, educate yourself.

Here are five myths about oral cancer — and the facts to clear them up:

Myth #1: Spotting the signs of oral cancer is easy.

  • Fact: Often mouth or throat cancer can manifest in places that are hard to notice, such as the lining of the mouth, base of your tongue, lymph nodes and tonsils. Regular visits to your dentist are essential to detect any issues. Also, be aware of symptoms that can signal a problem, including: hoarseness; mouth or lip sore or lump that doesn’t heal; white or red patch on the tongue, gums, tonsils or mouth lining; unusual bleeding in the mouth; and feeling as if something is caught in the throat or difficulty swallowing.

Myth #2: Only patients who are at a high risk get screened for oral cancer.

  • Fact: Going to the dentist is vital for good oral health in both young and older adults. Screening for oral cancer is standard in most dental exams, and it helps detect cancer early when it’s most treatable. During this noninvasive routine, your dentist can check for signs of oral cancer in your throat, mouth and on your tongue. If your dentists finds any unusual sores, discoloration or lumps, you may have further testing to determine the cause.

Myth #3: Young people don’t have to worry about oral cancer.

  • Fact: Most cases of oral cancer are found in patients 50 years or older because this form of the disease often takes many years to develop. However, the number of cases linked to HPV and oral cancer has risen over the years and is putting younger people at a greater risk. The HPV vaccine can sharply reduce oral HPV infections that are a major risk factor for cancers of the throat and mouth.

Myth #4: Only people who smoke or use tobacco can get oral cancer.

  • Fact: The two most common risk factors for developing oral cancer are tobacco and alcohol use. However, it is still possible for non-smokers or non-drinkers to be diagnosed at some point in their lives. While genetics play a part in the likelihood of developing oral cancer, other risk factors include a weakened immune system, prolonged sun exposure, HPV infection, gender (men are at greater risk), age (risk increases with age) and poor diet.

Myth #5: Prevention methods against oral cancer do not exist.

  • Fact: Perhaps the biggest step in preventing oral cancer is to quit or never start smoking — and avoid any kind of tobacco product, including chewing tobacco. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, drinking less alcohol and limiting your exposure to the sun on the lips are also helpful in preventing oral cancer. Getting the HPV vaccine and practicing safe sex also helps limit your chances of HPV infection.

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blog:

Head and neck cancers: detection and prevention

Smoking and drinking can lead to more than lung cancer

Why you shouldn’t skip that trip to the dentist

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