According to the American Dental Association, approximately 42,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with this largely preventable type of cancer that affects the mouth, throat, and tongue. It’s a serious form of cancer. The overall 5-year survival rate of those diagnosed is only slightly more than 64%. Overall, oral cancer rates have increased approximately 15% from the mid-1970s, and oral cancer rates increase with age. The increase becomes more rapid after age 50, and peaks between ages 60 and 70. The average age of most people diagnosed with these cancers is 62. The American Cancer Society reports that more than half of all oral cancer patients are 65 years of age and older. When oral cancer is detected and treated early, the outcomes improve significantly. Early cancer detection saves lives.

The primary risk factors for oral cancer are smoking and alcohol use. 90% of oral cancer patients use tobacco, and 75% drink alcohol frequently. All of us should protect our lips from lip cancer by limiting exposure to the sun and using lip balm with sunscreen.

Oral cancer can sometimes be detected by lesions found on your tongue or in your mouth. If you find a lesion or sore in your mouth, see your dentist right away to have it checked out. Your dentist is trained to conduct oral cancer screenings, and if any abnormality is suspected, sample tissues will be sent to a lab for further evaluation. If cancer is confirmed, your dentist can get started on a cancer treatment right away.

Oral cancer often starts as tiny white or red spot sores, but there are other signs as well. If you have a sore that bleeds easily and doesn’t heal, pain tenderness or numbness, a small rough patch, lump, or color change in your mouth that lasts for more than a couple of weeks, or difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving your tongue or jaw, it is important to rule out oral cancer early on. Regular dental visits for seniors are important because oral cancer in its early stages does not typically cause pain, so its easy to ignore the signs and symptoms.