What are the risk factors and warning signs of oral cancer?

Note: The physicians from Pennington Cancer Center at Baton Rouge General cannot provide a diagnosis or medical advice in the Ask the Expert segment because they do not have thorough knowledge of relevant personal and family medical history, and a physical examination. They can respond to general questions about cancer and its treatment.

Question -  I don't smoke or drink but I'm concerned about a spot in my throat.  What are the risk factors and warning signs of oral cancer?

Answer:  I suggest you schedule an appointment with your primary care physician to discuss your concerns and allow your physician to examine your throat and cheek.  A number of benign conditions could also likely cause the finding you describe.  If your primary care physician is concerned, referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist may be indicated.  If you prefer (or if you do not have a primary care physician), you can make an appointment directly with an ear, nose and throat physician.

As you point out, smoking and alcohol are two major risk factors for oral cancer.  Other risk factors include nutrition, HPV virus, chronic irritation, age (half of patients are over age 65) and gender (oral cancer is twice as frequent in men - possibly related to tobacco and alcohol habits).

As with most cancers, early diagnosis of oral cancer is important and cure rates are much higher than when diagnosis is delayed. The side effects of treatment are also generally much less severe when oral cancer is treated at an early stage.  Treatments include surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy depending upon the stage of disease and coexisting medical conditions.

A very good reference for cancer information, including excellent information on oral cancer is the American Cancer Society website: http://www.cancer.org

Richard F. Burroughs, MD

Medical Director

Pennington Cancer Center at Baton Rouge General