Why is oral cancer such a secret and how do people get it?

Friday 27th July 2018 marks World Head and Neck Cancer Day. At Riverstone Family Dental we are advocating prevention through oral cancer screenings carried out at your 6 monthly dental checkups. Call us on 8678 3538 so we can book you in. As someone who has seen oral cancer and how it can affect families, I value the importance of awareness of this condition. People diagnosed with oral cancer have a 60% 5 year survival from the time of their diagnosis. However, if the cancer has spread to another part of the body, the 5 year survival rate drops to 39%. That is an insanely high mortality rate and I believe we need to push more information out there to help prevent such a horrible disease. One of the key factors which improves your chances of survival is early diagnosis. This gives us another reason why your 6 monthly dental checkups are so important.

What is oral cancer?

Cancer is the formation of cells which can grow and destroy nearby normal tissue. Oral cancer affects the lips, tissues around the teeth, cheeks, roof of the mouth, under and on the tongue, the back of the mouth such as the tonsils (known as oropharyngeal cancer). Just like other cancers, it can spread to other parts of the body. Oral cancer usually spreads to the lymph nodes in the neck region. Once oral cancer has spread, the survival rates drop significantly.

How do you know if you have oral cancer?

In its early stages, oral cancer is silent. Not many people realise they have it until the latter stages. So the best way to find it early is to visually check. This is best done by your dentist. However, you can check yourself at home. If you see a patch of white or red in your mouth, the guideline is it should disappear within two weeks. If it hasn’t, then you must see your dentist as soon as possible. When there is a white patch in your mouth, your dentist may try to wipe it off to exclude candidiasis (fungal infection in the mouth). If it doesn’t wipe off, then they may do further tests. Oral cancers can present very differently. Some look like an ulcer, like as if you have burnt or cut the roof of your mouth on some pizza. Others feel firm, like a nodule. The main commonality is that they are persistent and are getting bigger or worse over time. Another warning sign is enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or right under your jaw line. If you feel something different or a swelling that was not there before then see your dentist immediately.

How do you get oral cancer?

Some people get cancer despite living very healthy lives. However, there is a substantial amount of evidence showing that some habits or environmental factors increase your chances of getting oral cancer. These include:

  • smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes, chewing tobacco
  • excessive alcohol intake
  • Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is commonly acquired through oral sex. Of all these risk factors, we are seeing an increase in HPV-related oral and oropharyngeal cancers.
  • sun exposure and not using sunscreen on your lips
  • previous cancer
  • chewing Betel nuts
  • hereditary conditions
  • weakened immune system or not eating enough fruits and vegetables


If you are worried about a loved one or have a sore that just doesn’t go away then give Riverstone Family Dental a call on 8678 3538.


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