Men and Women Need to Get Screened for Oral, Head and Neck Cancers

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April 20, 2023

April is Oral, Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Month and Arizona Oncology, a practice in The US Oncology Network, would like to remind both men and women to speak with their healthcare providers about getting screened for the disease.

Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are more than twice as common in men as in women and occur most often in the tongue, tonsils and oropharynx, gums, floor of the mouth, and other parts of the mouth. It is estimated that approximately 39,500 people will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in the United States this year, and an estimated 7,500 will lose their lives to the disease (American Cancer Society Cancer Facts & Figures, 2015).

Many pre-cancers and cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx can be found early during routine screening exams by a dentist, doctor, dental hygienist or by self-exam. However, many of these cancers are found because of signs or symptoms. Even small signs should be examined. Any bumps inside the mouth, on the tongue, or lips that do not go away should be seen by a physician. Also, difficulty swallowing is a sign that should be checked out.

Possible signs and symptoms of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer can include:

  • A sore in the mouth that does not heal (most common symptom)
  • Pain in the mouth that does not go away (also very common)
  • A lump or thickening in the cheek
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth
  • A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat that does not go away
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Trouble moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw
  • Voice changes
  • A lump or mass in the neck
  • Weight loss
  • Constant bad breath

Some people who have oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer have few or no known risk factors, and others who have several risk factors never develop the disease. Factors increasing risk of the disease include:

  • Tobacco use – Most people with oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers use tobacco, and the risk of developing these cancers is related to how much and how long they smoked or chewed.
  • Alcohol use – About 7 out of 10 patients with oral cancer are heavy drinkers.
  • Betel quid and gutka – In Southeast Asia, South Asia, and certain other areas of the world, many people chew betel quid, which is made up of areca nut and lime wrapped in a betel leaf. Many people in these areas also chew gutka, a mixture of betel quid and tobacco. People who chew betel quid or gutka have an increased risk of cancer of the mouth.
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection – People with oral and oropharyngeal cancer linked to HPV infection tend to be younger and are less likely to be smokers and drinkers.
  • Gender – About twice as common in men as in women.
  • Age – Most patients with these cancers are older than 55 when the cancers are first found.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) light – Cancers of the lip are more common in people who have outdoor jobs where they are exposed to sunlight for long periods of time.
  • Poor nutrition – Several studies have found that a diet low in fruits and vegetables is linked with an increased risk of cancers of the oral cavity or oropharynx.
  • Weakened immune system – Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are more common in people who have a weak immune system.
  • Graft-versus-host disease – Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a condition that sometimes occurs after a stem cell transplant. During this medical procedure, blood stem cells from a donor are used to replace bone marrow that has been destroyed by disease, chemotherapy or radiation. GVHD occurs when the donor stem cells recognize the patient’s cells as foreign and launch an attack against them. GVHD can affect many tissues of the body, including those in the mouth. This increases the risk of oral cancer, which can occur as early as 2 years after GVHD.
  • Genetic syndromes – People with certain syndromes caused by inherited defects (mutations) in certain genes have a very high risk of mouth and throat cancer. (Fanconi anemia, Dyskeratosis congenital)
  • Lichen planus – This disease occurs mainly in middle-aged people. Most often it affects the skin (usually as an itchy rash), but it sometimes affects the lining of the mouth and throat, appearing as small white lines or spots. A severe case may slightly increase the risk of oral cancer.

Arizona Oncology plays a major role in helping people throughout the state and their families win their battle against oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer by providing easy access to a full range of advanced cancer care services in a setting that allows patients to remain close to their homes and their support network of family and friends. (Originally posted 2015, updated 2024)