Oral Cancer Risks: Why Screenings May Save Your Life

April is Oral, Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Month—the perfect time to learn more about your risk factors. Unlike a mammogram, a PSA test, or other routine cancer screenings, oral cancer screening is something most people don’t think to ask about at the doctor’s office. Because oral cancer affects a smaller portion of the population—about 3 percent of annual cancer cases—many aren’t even aware of the risk factors.

But catching oral cancer early is key to survival. The survival rate for oral cancers diagnosed at a localized stage is about 80 percent. However, when diagnosed at an advanced stage, the survival rates can be as low as 30 percent. That’s why we have a comprehensive Oral Cancer Screening Program at Roswell Park.

Since it was founded in 2007, the program has helped more than 240 patients assess their risk of oral cancer, and in some cases, catch the disease at an earlier, more easily treatable stage.

Oral Cancer Risk Factors

What are the most common risk factors? Using tobacco of any kind and alcohol abuse can increase your chances of developing oral cancer. A combination of tobacco and alcohol use has been shown to increase the risk of oral cancer by about 30 percent. Additionally, oral cancer often returns after a first occurrence, so having had oral cancer previously can put you at high risk of being diagnosed again.

In recent decades, much research has been devoted to the link between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and oral cancer. While HPV is a common virus that is often defeated by a healthy immune system alone, persistent cases of the virus can increase your risk of developing cancerous lesions, particularly on the back of the tongue and tonsils.

Signs and Symptoms

Regardless of your risk factors or medical history, if you see white or red lesions or patchy spots anywhere in your oral cavity, be vigilant. The oral cavity includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the bottom of the mouth under the tongue, the bony roof of the mouth (hard palate), both upper and lower jaw bony ridges, and the small area behind the wisdom teeth. Tell your doctor or call Roswell Park. Paying attention to changes in your body and acting on them quickly can often mean the difference in finding oral cancer, or any disease, in a treatable, manageable state or getting a not-so-desirable prognosis.

Call us anytime for advice or to learn more at 1-800-ROSWELL (1-800-767-9355). Our Oral Cancer Screening Program is here to serve you and your family members to ensure your optimum health.