What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is a form of cancer found in the tissues of the mouth, lips, pharynx and part of the throat. This cancer is commonly referred to as mouth, tongue and throat cancer. Approximately 550 Marylanders will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year. The rate of diagnosis is even higher in Anne Arundel County when compared to both national and state averages.

Oral cancer ranks eighth as the most common cancer in men, and 13th as the most common cancer in women. The American Cancer Society estimates that 7,600 people will die each year from oral cancer. The 5-year survival rate of oral cancer is 60 percent; therefore, early detection is essential. To check for possible suspicious areas, it is important that you have an annual exam performed by a doctor, dentist or dental hygienist.

The risk factors for oral cancer include:

Tobacco use

  • Tobacco use, including cigarettes, chew, dip, snuff, pipes and cigars, drastically increases the risk of developing oral cancer.
  • Ninety percent of individuals diagnosed with oral cancer use tobacco products of some kind.
  • Quitting smoking will help reduce the risk of oral cancer. Download the “Roadmap to Quitting” Workbook, order a FREE Quit Smoking Kit or call the Learn To Live Line at 410-222-7979.

Alcohol consumption

  • Men who consume more than two drinks a day and women who drink more than one drink a day are at higher risk.
  • The risk for oral cancer increases when tobacco and alcohol are used together.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Moderate drinking means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. Twelve ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits count as a drink.


  • Oral cancer is most common among African American men, and it ranks fourth as the most common cancer in African American men.
  • The rate of African Americans who develop oral cancer is one third higher than Caucasians.
  • The number of African Americans that die from oral cancer is almost twice as high when compared to Caucasians.


  • The risk for developing oral cancer increases with age. Most oral cancers occur after age 40.


  • Men are two times more likely than women to develop oral cancer.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

  • HPV can infect both men and women, and people generally do not have noticeable symptoms.
  • The HPV virus type 16 is linked to oral cancer. This is the same viral subtype responsible for a majority of cervical cancers in women. Oral sex increases risk of oral cancer caused by HPV.
  • For more information on HPV, click here.

Sun exposure

  • UVA and UVB radiation are types of invisible ultraviolet rays that come from the sun and tanning devices, and both are known to cause skin cancer. Skin cancer can develop on the lips and skin around the mouth.
  • For more information about protecting your skin from the sun, click here.

Poor diet

  • Eating a diet high in fat, low in fiber and not rich in fruits and vegetables can increase your risk of developing cancer.
  • For more information about eating a healthy diet, click here.

Personal or family history of cancer

  • Having had cancer personally or having a family member with cancer increases a person’s chances of developing different forms of cancer, including oral cancer.

It is important for everyone to have an oral exam even if there are no known risk factors or symptoms; 25 percent of oral cancer patients have no known risk factors. Your health care professional can review possible risk factors for oral cancer with you.

Oral cancer symptoms include:

  • A sore in the mouth that does not heal (the most common symptom)
  • A pain in the mouth or throat that does not go away
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • White or red patches inside the mouth
  • Numbness of your tongue or other areas of your mouth
  • Numbness of your lower lip or chin
  • Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Bleeding in your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Voice changes
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Swelling of your jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Weight loss
  • Pain in one ear without hearing loss
  • A lump or thickening in the cheek and/or neck (usually occurs when the cancer has progressed)

It is important to consult with a dental or medical provider if any of these symptoms last more than two weeks. Waiting for pain is often too late; early detection is key.

What you can do to protect your mouth:

  • There is a better chance for a cure if oral cancer is found early. Talk to your health care provider or dentist about receiving an annual oral exam.
  • Do not use tobacco products. For information on quitting smoking, click here or call the Learn To Live Line at 410-222-7979.
  • Practice good oral hygiene; for tips, click here.
  • Use a lip balm with an SPF of at least 30.
  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables as part of a low-fat, high fiber diet; for tips, click here.
  • Limit alcohol consumption.

Early detection is essential. Once the cancer spreads, the survival rate decreases.

Additional Information: