Nearly 50,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with oral cancer each year. That's just about 140 per day.

When I ran my own dental practice, I occasionally came across cancer in patients. It was never an easy conversation. Seeing an oral surgeon is the first step, and the most common question I’d hear about that was, “How soon should I go?” I always told them that if I could drive them myself right then, I would.

I didn’t say it to scare them, I said it to let them know how important it was to act quickly. Oral cancer has a much higher success rate when diagnosed and treated early.

Oral cancer can be scary. But knowing the basics and how to protect yourself goes a long way in keeping you healthy.

How do I know if I’m at risk?

Here are a few of the things that can impact your oral cancer risk:

  • Tobacco and alcohol. These are at the top of the list, especially when used together.
  • Age. Most oral cancer is diagnosed in people over 40.
  • Diet. The foods you eat play an important role; a poor diet low in fruits and vegetables impacts your risk of oral cancer.
  • HPV. This is a sexually transmitted infection known as the human papillomavirus and has been linked to oral cancers, particularly in younger individuals.

The good news is you can control most of these risks, like eating right and staying away from tobacco.

What are the symptoms?

Before we talk about symptoms, it’s important to know where to look for them. Oral cancer includes both the mouth and the back of the throat. Here are several signs to watch for:

  • A lump, irritated area or sore
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • A red or white patch, mostly on the tongue or floor of the mouth
  • A feeling of numbness in the tongue or other area of your mouth
  • Having a hard time moving your jaw or tongue
  • A sensation that something is caught in your throat
  • A firm lump found around your jaw or neck area
  • Change in speech

When should I see a dentist?

Regular dental checkups with your dentist are the first step in prevention. Your dentist can spot any early indicators of trouble. However, if you experience any of the symptoms listed above for two weeks, see your dentist right away.

What’s an oral cancer screening?

An oral cancer screening is when a dentist does a visual scan of your face, lips, tongue, under your tongue, throat and your neck. They’ll also feel for lumps along your neck, throat and sometimes along the floor of your mouth. It’s a painless exam and only takes a couple minutes.

HealthPartners dentists perform an oral cancer screening for anyone over 18, and for teens who use tobacco.

If your dentist does find a suspicious spot, they’ll likely refer you to an oral surgeon. Typically, an oral surgeon will examine the spot, remove a small sample and send it to a lab for testing. This is called a biopsy, and it’ll help guide a treatment plan if cancer is found.

The most proven method for detecting oral cancer is to look and feel for signs of cancer. Be cautious of other practices or tools a dentist may use to screen for cancer.

Is it curable?

Just like with other types of cancer, oral cancer can be cured if caught early. Treatment may include a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Other specialists may be included based on the situation.

Finding the cancer late makes it harder to treat. Too often, oral cancer isn’t found until it reaches another area of the body where problems are more easily detected.

The biggest challenge with oral cancer is that people don’t easily notice the warning signs. It’s also hard to see, especially if it occurs in the back of the throat. This gives the disease time to grow. Of the 50,000 people diagnosed each year, about 40 percent will die within five years of their diagnosis. That number has gone down over the last decade, but still shows how important it is to find oral cancer early.

HPV adds to the challenge because cancer associated with it tends to develop in the back of the mouth, throat and tonsils. Those areas are harder to check.

Is oral cancer screening and treatment covered by my dental or medical insurance (or both)?

Your routine dental checkup should include the oral cancer screening. That means it’s covered by your dental plan. If you visit an oral surgeon who performs a biopsy, that would be covered by your medical plan. Any additional treatment would then also be covered under your medical plan.

Is anyone doing research to help?

Yes, there are many studies that are looking for ways to reduce the risk of oral cancer and treat it. We’re also working on advances in radiation therapy, chemotherapy and vaccines.

HealthPartners Institute is actively researching oral cancer. One of our studies is looking into finding a way to screen for HPV in dental clinics. Another study focuses on dental oral cancer screenings to help gauge common practices among dental providers.

Learn more about which cancer tests are recommend and how often you should be screened.