Oral cancer is cancer of the mouth, tongue, or oropharynx (the middle of the throat, from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box).

Oral cancer is not rare

Close to 37,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer in the United States this year.  It will cause over 8,000 deaths, killing roughly one person per hour, 24 hours per day.  

Approximately half of people with oral cancer will live more than five years after they are diagnosed and treated.  If the cancer is found early (before it has spread to other tissues), the cure rate is close to 80-90%.  However, more than half of oral cancers have already spread by the time that the cancer is detected.  In most cases it has spread to the throat or neck. 

Oral cancer is particularly dangerous because it may not be noticed by the patient in its early stages as it can frequently spread without resulting in pain or symptoms that people might easily recognize.  Screening for oral cancer is important and is part of a regular dental examination. 

Signs and symptoms of oral cancer

See your doctor about any skin lesion, lump, or ulcer that does not resolve itself within 14 days and appears on the tongue, lip, or other mouth areas.

Oral cancer often exhibits the following characteristics:

  • small sores in the mouth;
  • tongue problems;
  • difficulty swallowing or speaking;
  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck;
  • usually painless in the early stages;
  • a burning sensation or pain in the later stages.

Younger, non-smokers are the fasting growing population for oral cancer

For decades, oral cancer had most often occurred in older people who had a history of using tobacco products.  Today that is no longer the case.  A virus called Human Papilloma Virus version 16 (HPV16) has replaced tobacco as the number one cause of oral cancer.  This is one of the same viruses that are responsible for the majority of cervical cancer in women.  HPV16 is now the leading cause of oral cancer and is found in approximately 60% of newly diagnosed patients.

This has also impacted the demographics of who is getting the disease.  It is no longer the domain of those over age 50 who have smoked a decade or more of their lives.  The fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population are people in the 25-50 age range who have never been smokers.  Evidence suggests that the HPV16 virus can be sexually transmitted between partners and accounts for the increase in young victims of oral cancer who do not have a history of using tobacco.

While HPV16 has become the most common cause of oral cancer, additional risk factors continue to include smoking, using chewing tobacco or dip, and heavy drinking of alcohol.    

Additional information

For more information about oral cancer visit www.oralcancerfoundation.org or speak with your doctor.


Dr. Lily Ling received her DMD from Tufts Dental School and completed an advanced education in general dentistry  (AEGD) residency at UConn Health Center.

Sherborn Family Dental
19 N. Main St., Ste 1B
Sherborn, MA 01770

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