Guide to Oral Cancer


The American Oral Cancer Foundation promotes Oral Cancer Awareness in April each year to help bring more attention to the prevention and detection of this serious disease. Every year, nearly 50,000 Americans learn that they have oral cancer and one person dies from it every hour of the day.

Where Does Oral Cancer Appear?

An oral tumor can show up in the following places inside of your mouth:

  • Cheeks
  • Hard palate
  • Gum tissue
  • Lips
  • Soft palate
  • Throat
  • Tongue

Although an oral tumor can be difficult to detect in any of these places, people whose tumor grows in the throat are at an extra disadvantage since they can’t see it at all. Tumors that grow in the other areas listed above often appear as a small red or white sore. Some are small enough that you can’t see them while others are easy to dismiss as something else. This is one reason why dentists check for signs of oral cancer at every preventive care exam.

Common Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Some people may develop all the symptoms listed below while others may only exhibit one or two. We encourage you to schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or dentist if you notice any of these issues:

  • Swallowing difficulty
  • Bleeding towards the back of your mouth that looks like it could have originated in the throat
  • Recurrent bleeding in any area of your mouth
  • Hoarseness unrelated to a cold or smoking
  • Unusual swelling, lumps, or growths near your mouth, in your mouth, or on your neck
  • White or red patches inside your mouth or on your lips
  • Sores that appear suddenly and don’t show any indication of starting to heal after two weeks or longer

Risk Factors Associated with Oral Cancer

While anyone can develop oral cancer, the American Cancer Society states that having one or more of these seven risk factors significantly increases your chances of developing the disease:

  1. Age 55 or older: Two-thirds of all people who receive an oral cancer diagnosis are over the age of 55 with an average age at diagnosis of 62.
  2. Alcohol abuse: Among people diagnosed with oral cancer each year, 70 percent admit to drinking heavily. For people who drink and smoke, the risk of oral cancer is approximately 100 times greater than it is for those who abstain or only do these things in moderation.
  3. Chewing or smoking any type of tobacco: Approximately 80 percent of people who develop oral cancer chew tobacco, smoke cigarettes, or smoke another form of tobacco. The risk increases the longer they engage in this habit. Oral cancer tumors typically appear on the lips, gums, and cheeks.
  4. Genetic inheritance: A child can inherit the gene for one of two specific diseases known to increase the risk of oral cancer. The first, Fanconi anemia, is an abnormality in the blood that causes faulty replication in multiple gene sets. Children with Fanconi anemia are at greater risk of developing leukemia or aplastic anemia. People of any age with this condition have a risk up to 500 times greater than those without it of developing oral cancer. The second condition, dyskeratosis congenita, increases the risk of mouth and throat cancer at earlier ages than it would normally appear. It’s also associated with aplastic anemia.
  5. Low consumption of fruits and vegetables: The American Cancer Society reports that people whose diets contains few or no fruits and vegetables have a higher risk of developing oropharynx or oral cancer than those with better nutrition.
  6. Male gender: Men are twice as likely as women to develop oral cancer as well as oropharyngeal cancer. One reason for this is that more men have traditionally smoked and chewed tobacco.
  7. Ultraviolet light exposure: Both lip and oral cancer occur more frequently in people who have prolonged or frequent exposure to the sun. This includes people who work primarily outdoors. People sometimes assume they’re safe from the damage of the sun in the cooler seasons, but this simply isn’t true.

How Can You Prevent Oral Cancer?

It’s important to reduce any risk factors for oral cancer that you can control. For example, don’t smoke, drink only in moderation, eat a healthy diet, and visit your dentist every six months for a check-up and oral cancer screening. You can also ask your primary care provider at Western Maryland Health System to check your mouth for any signs of the disease.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.