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How Healthy Choices Can Significantly Decrease Your Risk for Mouth Cancer

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You have probably heard time and time again that smoking cigarettes can lead to lung cancer and heart disease. But did you know that tobacco is a risk factor for oral cancer as well?

Oral cancer—which includes cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks, the floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and throat—is considered a lifestyle disease. This means that the majority of cases are related to tobacco and alcohol use. Mouth cancer affects more men than women. A typical person at high risk for mouth cancer is male, over age 40, who uses tobacco and/or heavy alcohol.

According to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, approximately 90 percent of people with oral cancer are tobacco users, and smokers are six times more likely than non-smokers to develop oral cancer. Additionally, users of smokeless tobacco, commonly known as chewing tobacco, are 50 times more likely to develop mouth cancer.

“Oral cancer is one of the most preventable cancers,” says Anupam Desai, MD, a medical oncologist in the Head and Neck Cancer program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “There are things you can do to reduce your risk, including quitting tobacco use and drinking alcohol in moderation.” Dr. Desai also encourages people to see their dentist regularly, as mouth cancers are often discovered during dental exams or treatments.

According to The Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 53,000 new cases of mouth cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. This is a relatively low number compared to other cancers, such as breast.

“Although the numbers are lower and mouth cancer is very treatable if found at an early stage, it’s not without consequences,” says Scharukh Jalisi, MD, Chief of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery at BIDMC. “Removing cancer within the mouth can affect the patient’s appearance, as well as the ability to speak, eat, or swallow, but well-planned and skillful surgery can minimize these effects.”

People who stop using tobacco, even after many years of use, can greatly reduce their risk of all smoking-related illnesses, including mouth cancer. Statistics from The Mouth Cancer Foundation show that for patients who have been treated for mouth cancer and have quit smoking, only 6 percent will develop it again. In contrast, 37 percent of patients with mouth cancer who continue smoking develop a second cancer.

Beware of the symptoms of mouth cancer, which include:

  • sore in the mouth that does not heal (most common symptom)
  • pain in the mouth that does not go away (also very common)
  • persistent lump or thickening in the cheek
  • persistent white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
  • sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat that does not go away
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • difficulty 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
  • lump or mass in the neck
  • unintentional weight loss
  • persistent bad breath

“When it comes to preventing mouth cancer, it’s all about making healthy lifestyle choices,” said Dr. Desai. “Quitting smoking or cutting back on alcohol might not be easy, but there are many resources available to help and it could have a significant impact on your life and quality of life.”

For more information, visit bidmc.org.