Oral Cancer | The Facts


Oral cancer, although infrequent, is one of the most deadly and debilitating cancers. Every day, at least three Australians are being diagnosed with oral cancer. Only half of those diagnosed will still be alive after 5 years.

But why is this cancer so deadly?

The high mortality rate is due to the cancer giving minimal symptoms until it reaches its latest and most deadly stage. People with late stage oral cancer, despite having a large portion of their neck, jaw, and tongue removed, have a low 5 year survival rate of only 10%. Life can be very difficult during this stage, with talking and eating becoming much more challenging, as well as the inability to easily show facial expressions such as smiling, and the ability to kiss loved ones.

Before it reaches the advanced stage, these minimal symptoms may feel like ulcers or small lumps in the mouth. Such symptoms are commonly confused with simple trauma from eating – but if they last for over two weeks they should be regarded with suspicion.

At an early stage, symptoms are rare. Keen eyes and a dedicated oral cancer screening is needed for your dentist to pick up the small and vague signs of this cancer. Educated and proactive dentists may use new technology to assist in finding these signs.  Special fluorescent lights with accompanying eyewear give the best chance for early diagnosis of oral cancer.

If oral cancer is picked up at an early stage, it can be treated much more simply and successfully. With much more minimal surgery, and possible radiotherapy, there is an 85-90% survival rate over 5 years.

The biggest risk factors for oral cancer are smoking and alcohol – these account for 75% of cases. 25% of people with oral cancer, however, do not smoke and rarely drink alcohol. A large proportion of these cases may be linked to people who have had unprotected oral sex partners in the past and been exposed to the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), but not all. For this reason it is important for everyone to have a regular oral cancer screening with their dentist or hygienist.