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Oral Cancer

What Is the Outlook for People With Oral Cancer?

For oral cancer, the survival rates, by stage are as follows: 

  • Stage I: 80%-85%
  • Stage II: 60%-75%
  • Stage III 35%-66% 
  • Stage IV: 15%-30%. 

The five- and 10-year survival rates for all stages are 56% and 41% respectively.

How Is Oral Cancer Diagnosed?

As part of your routine dental exam, your dentist should conduct an oral cancer screening. More specifically, your dentist will feel for any lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, face, and oral cavity. When examining your mouth, your dentist should look for any sores or discolored tissue as well as check for any signs and symptoms mentioned above.

Your dentist should perform an oral brush biopsy if he or she sees tissue in your mouth that looks suspicious. This test is painless and involves taking a small sample of the tissue and analyzing it for abnormal cells. Alternatively, if the tissue looks more suspicious, your dentist may recommend a scalpel biopsy. This procedure usually requires local anesthesia and may be performed by your dentist or a specialist. These tests are necessary to detect oral cancer early, before it has had a chance to progress and spread.

How Is Oral Cancer Treated?

Oral cancer is usually treated with surgery alone or radiation alone in the early stages. In more advanced cases, a combination of surgery and radiation is the most common treatment. In the late stages of oral cancer, a combination of radiation with chemotherapy, with or without surgery, is usually used.

What Can I Do to Prevent Oral Cancer?

These steps may help you to prevent oral cancer:

  • Don't smoke or use any tobacco products 
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. (Refrain from binge drinking.)
  • Eat a well balanced diet, especially with vegetables containing vitamin A.
  • Limit your exposure to the sun. Repeated exposure increases the risk of cancer on the lip, especially the lower lip. When in the sun, use UV-A/B-blocking sun protective lotions on your skin as well as your lips.
  • Because there is a link with the HPV virus, young people engaging in oral sex have a higher risk of developing oral cancer.
  • Avoid using marijuana.

You can take an active role in detecting oral cancer early by doing the following:

  • Conduct a self-exam at least once a month. Using a bright light and a mirror, look and feel your lips and the front of your gums. Tilt your head back and look at and feel the roof of your mouth. Pull your cheeks out to view the inside of your mouth, the lining of your cheeks, and the back gums. Pull out your tongue and look at all surfaces; examine the floor of your mouth. Look at the back of your throat. Feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes in both sides of your neck and under your lower jaw. Call your dentist's office immediately if you notice any changes in the appearance of your mouth or any of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer mentioned above.
  • See your dentist on a regular schedule. Even though you may be conducting frequent self exams, sometimes dangerous spots or sores in the mouth can be very tiny and difficult to see on your own. The American Cancer Society recommends oral cancer screening exams every three years for persons over age 20 and annually for those over age 40. During your next dental appointment, ask your dentist to perform an oral exam. Early detection of oral cancer can improve the chance of successful treatment.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Arnold Wax, MD on May 07, 2012

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