Oral Cancer: Recognizing the Signs

Michael Douglas has won dozens of awards throughout his acting career, including the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 2009 and the Golden Eye for Lifetime Achievement at the Zurich Film Festival in 2010.  No doubt those award announcements were nothing compared to the announcement from his doctor that he was tumor free after an intense battle with throat cancer.  The Oscar winning star announced his throat cancer diagnosis in August, 2010, and endured an extensive 8 week bout of chemotherapy and radiation.  In January, 2011, the tumor could not be detected by physical examinations, CTs, MRIs or PET scans.  While he is not completely out of the danger zone, Mr. Douglas had a complete response to treatment and is likely on the road to a full recovery.

The occurrences of oral cancer have greatly increased over the last 20 years.  Risk factors for oral and oro-pharyngeal cancer include alcohol and tobacco use, sun exposure (lips), marijuana use and HPV infection.  The best way to avoid oral cancer?  Avoid the risk factors that can lead to oral cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute’s website, www.cancer.gov, the leading cause of oral cancer is tobacco use in any form.  The more tobacco used, the greater the risk of developing cancer.  People who use tobacco and drink alcohol are even more likely to develop oral cancer than someone who just uses alcohol or tobacco.

However, a person who currently smokes cigarettes can lower their chances of oral cancer simply by quitting smoking.  Clinical trials have shown that within 5 years of stopping tobacco use, a person’s chance of developing oral cancer drops by 50%.  10 years of being tobacco free lowers a person’s risk of oral cancer to that of a person who has never smoked.

Oral cancer can occur in three different regions:  the lips; the oral cavity including the front of the tongue, the gingiva (gums), the buccal mucosa (lining of the cheeks), the floor of the mouth, the palate and the area behind the wisdom teeth; the oropharynx which includes the middle part of the throat behind the mouth, the back one-third of the tongue, the soft palate (roof of the mouth), the throat and the tonsils.

A dentist, based on findings during an oral exam, usually makes a diagnosis of oral cancer.  The exam typically includes a visual exam of the whole oral cavity as well as manually feeling for abnormalities such as swollen areas or hardened masses.  Symptoms to watch for between dental visits include:

  • sores or lesions in the mouth that don’t heal
  • a sore throat or the feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • difficulty swallowing, chewing or moving the jaw or tongue
  • numbness of the tongue or other areas of the mouth
  • chronic hoarseness

If you experience these symptoms, contact your dentist immediately.


D. Gregory Chadwick, DDS, MS
Interim Dean, ECU School of Dental Medicine