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Dentist Explaining Tooth X-Rays To A Patient.

Everything You Need to Know About Oral Cancers

Dentist Explaining Tooth X-Rays To A Patient.

Oral cancer is cancer of the oral cavity and the throat.

What is the oral cavity?

The oral cavity is the area of the mouth, including inside and around it. Included in it are the:

  • Teeth, lips and gums
  • Front two-thirds of the tongue
  • Inner lining of the cheeks and lips (aka the buccal mucosa)
  • Floor of the mouth (area beneath the tongue)
  • Roof of the mouth (hard palate)
  • Small spot behind the third molars, or “wisdom teeth” (aka retromolar trigone)

What Are the Symptoms of Mouth Cancer?

Symptoms of mouth cancer typically include:

  • A mouth or lip sore that won’t heal
  • A patch of white or red or your tongue, gums or the lining of your mouth
  • A lump in the mouth or on the lip
  • Abnormal bleeding, numbness or pain in the area of the mouth
  • Jaw or neck swelling
  • Ear pain
  • Chewing or swallowing trouble or painful chewing or swallowing

Everyone who develops mouth cancer experiences their own unique set of symptoms possibly including but not limited to any of these. Some oral cancer symptoms may be similar to symptoms of other medical problems, diseases or disorders. For that reason, always consult with your dentist for an actual, professional diagnosis.

What Causes Oral Cavity Cancers?

The predominant causes of mouth cancer are:

  • Tobacco (including cigarettes, pipes, cigars and smokeless tobacco forms like chew, dip and snuff)
  • Alcohol (particularly in excess)
  • Gender (oral cavity cancers are more common in males)
  • Age (oral cavity cancers are increasingly more common after 50)
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Excessive exposure of the lips to the sun

Having said all this, it’s also important to be aware that there are a growing number of oral cavity cancers diagnosed in those with no recognized risk factors.

How Do Dentists Evaluate and Diagnose Oral Cavity Cancer?

Beyond a complete physical exam and a full medical history, other diagnostic methods for mouth cancer could involve one of more of these procedures:


The dentist takes tissue samples from your body. A pathologist then looks at them under a microscope to find out if abnormal cells like cancer are present. For mouth cancers, biopsies are frequently collected under local anesthesia from the area of the mouth at the dentist’s office. Sometimes, the dentist will use a needle to collect tissue samples from the lymph nodes in the neck.


The dentist sticks a small fiber-optic scope down the throat to look for indications of oral cancer past the area of the mouth.

CT Scan or MRI

A computerized tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are two noninvasive diagnostic procedures that take pictures of your body to identify abnormalities that a standard X-ray may not reveal.


This noninvasive test utilizes high-frequency sound waves to produce a picture of the internal organs. In the case of mouth cancers, a dentist may use this procedure to collect or examine biopsies from lymph nodes of the neck.

Positron emission tomography (PET)/CT scan

Similar to a CT Scan, this procedure incorporates a radioactive dye that can help identify cancer in a person’s body.

Once a dentist makes a diagnosis of oral cancer, it is staged in order to figure out the extent of its progression so the most potentially effective treatment plan can be devised.

Your dentist figures out which diagnostic procedures are most appropriate for your particular situation.

How Do Dentists Treat Oral Cavity Cancer?

Typically, you’ll receive treatment recommendations after you and your dentist discuss your case with a multidisciplinary oncology team that may include a medical and/or radiation oncologist and neck and head surgeons, as well as, possibly, a speech-language pathologist.

You could require only a single type of treatment, or you may need a treatment protocol that combines multiple options. Among the various treatment options available for mouth cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Here are more details on those and other potential oral cancer treatment options.


The type(s) of surgery required depends on where, and how big and extensive the cancer is. You could require surgery to excise the cancer from your oral cavity or throat and/or to reconstruct or repair any damage the cancer has done to your mouth after the dentist removes it. Additionally, you may require surgery to excise the lymph nodes from your neck should the dentist have any concerns the cancer could have spread there as well.

Radiation Therapy

This procedure makes use of high-energy rays to damage the cancer cells and stop the cancer from spreading. This is an extremely localized procedure aimed exclusively at the spot where the cancer is located. Usually, a dentist will apply this treatment externally using a machine, though the dentist can also use radioactive materials to administer radiation therapy internally.


This treatment method utilizes medications that circulate throughout the body to eliminate cancer cells.


This method also uses medications, only these are intended to assist your body’s own immune function to combat the cancer. The dentist may recommend this for people whose oral cancers fail to respond to other, more conventional therapies.

Targeted Therapies

An option for certain patients are medications that target only certain cancer cells, such as Erbitux (cetuximab,) which targets exclusively epidermal growth factor receptors.

If you’re concerned that you may have oral cancer or simply wish to schedule an oral cancer screening, give us a call at our dental office College Park Dental, and schedule an appointment with a dentist in College Park.

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