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National Oral Health Surveillance System

Cancer of the Oral Cavity and Pharynx

Each year, more than 30,000 new cases of oral and pharyngeal cancer are diagnosed and over 8,000 deaths due to oral cancer occur. The 5-year survival rate for these cancers is only about 50 percent. Mortality from oral cancer is nearly twice as high in African-American males as it is in whites. Methods used to treat oral cancers (surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy) are disfiguring and costly. Avoiding high-risk behaviors, that include cigarette, cigar or pipe smoking, use of smokeless tobacco, and excessive use of alcohol are critical in preventing oral cancers. Early detection is key to increasing the survival rate for these cancers.

What are the signs and symptoms of oral cancer?

  • A mouth sore that fails to heal or that bleeds easily
  • A white or red patch in the mouth that will not go away
  • A lump, thickening or soreness in the mouth, throat, or tongue
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing food

What factors put me at risk of developing oral cancer?

  • Tobacco use
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Viral infections
  • Immunodeficiency
  • Poor nutrition
  • Excessive exposure to ultraviolet light (lip cancer)
  • Certain occupational exposures

How is oral cancer detected?

Most early signs of oral cancer are painless and are difficult to detect without a thorough head and neck examination by a dental or medical professional. A thorough head and neck examination should include a visual inspection and finger exploration of the tongue, floor of the mouth (under the tongue), palate (roof of the mouth), salivary glands, lymph nodes, insides of the cheek, and the back of the throat. The tongue should be moved to allow for the inspection of its sides and base. Your dental or medical provider should perform routine head and neck examinations, especially if you use tobacco or excessive amounts of alcohol.

The information provided on this Web page is general background information and should not be construed as CDC recommended practice or guidelines, except where official recommendation or guideline documents are specifically mentioned.

Page last reviewed: January 23, 2008
Page last modified: May 23, 2006
Content Source: Division of Oral Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion


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