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Oral cavity (mouth) and oropharyngeal (throat) cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable cancers if caught early. Since early detection greatly increases positive outcomes, there’s no better time than now to schedule a checkup to protect your smile from this dangerous and potentially life-threatening disease.

OCA infographicThe American Cancer Society estimates that more than 54,500 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer in 2023 and over 11,500 of those will die from the disease. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the state ranks 12th in rates of oral cancer and 3rd in oral cancer deaths.

This Oral Cancer Awareness Month, Anthony Morlandt, D.D.S., M.D., F.A.C.S., shares important information on oral cancer prevention and diagnosis. Dr. Morlandt is a head and neck surgeon with UAB Oral Oncology and professor in the UAB School of Dentistry Department of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery.

“Most often oral cancer develops in the surface tissue of the mouth and if undetected, it can begin penetrating deeper. That’s what makes early detection so important.”

What causes oral cancer?
There is no single cause for oral and oropharyngeal cancer, but certain factors can put you at increased risk. These include tobacco use, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and excessive sun or ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. Individuals with poor nutrition or human papilloma virus (HPV) can also be at higher risk. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that HPV causes 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States. And while age can be a factor – older adults are at higher risk for oral cancer – an increasing number of people under 40 are now being diagnosed.

Where can oral cancer appear?
Oral and oropharyngeal cancer may develop on the lips or inside the oral cavity on the tongue, gums, cheeks, or roof of the mouth. It can also develop in the back of the mouth, in the throat, or on the tonsils. Most often oral cancer develops in the surface tissue of the mouth and if undetected, it can begin penetrating deeper. That’s what makes early detection so important.

What are the signs and symptoms?
You might find lumps or thick tissue, or experience pain or difficulty chewing, speaking or swallowing. You could have a hoarse voice, ear pain, or a sore throat that doesn’t quit. This cancer can also present as white or red patches that won’t go away or a sore that bleeds and will not heal. If you notice something lingers more than a couple of weeks, you should get screened right away.

How can I prevent oral cancer?
To help prevent oral cancer, stop smoking or chewing tobacco and limit your alcohol consumption. Be sure to apply sunscreen to your face, neck, and lips when you are going to be in the sun or will be exposed to UV light. Vaccinate yourself or your children against HPV – the CDC estimates that HPV vaccination can reduce oral HPV infection by 90%.

How can I screen for oral cancer?
See your doctor if you have any symptoms including persistent hoarseness or sore throat, earaches or enlarged lymph notes of the neck, difficulty swallowing, or unexplained weight loss.
Your dentist also plays an important role in detection since every dental appointment presents an opportunity to be screened. A regular self-examination (once a month is recommended) is important to detecting this life-threatening cancer in its early stages. Check for unusual sores, swelling, and areas of red or white lesions.

UAB Oral Oncology

UAB Oral Oncology is the only head and neck surgery program in the Southeast dedicated to the treatment of oral cancer. The multidisciplinary team consists of fellowship trained surgeons, prosthodontists, physician assistants, and nurse coordinators, and are part of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer center head and neck cancer program. State of the art treatment involves 3D surgical planning and navigation including augmented reality.