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Oral Cancer

Each year, about 50,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oral, oropharyngeal, and other head and neck cancers. Oral cancer occurs most commonly in the tongue, cheeks, throat, floor of the mouth, lips, and minor salivary glands. Mouth cancers are more common in people over 40, particularly men.

The first sign of oral cancer is often a small red or white spot or sore toward the back of the mouth or under the tongue. This makes it difficult to spot.

Oral cancer can also appear as a painless mouth ulcer that doesn’t heal normally. Be aware of any unusual lumps in your mouth or jaw area or persistent hoarseness. Difficulty or pain while chewing or swallowing are also signs of oral cancer. If any of these symptoms don’t get better on their own, schedule an appointment with your dentist.

The death rate associated with oral cancer is particularly high because it’s usually discovered in an advanced stage. Early detection is key to increasing your chances for a favorable recovery.

Risk factors for oral cancer

  • Tobacco and alcohol use. Both are carcinogenic and come in close contact with the lips and mouth.
  • Overexposure to sunlight can increase the risk of cancer of the lips, especially on the lower lip.
  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. It affects skin that lines all moist areas of the body, including your mouth.
  • A family history of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), the most common type of oral cancer.

Oral cancer screening

Your twice-a-year visit to your dentist includes a screening for oral cancer. It takes just a few minutes and improves the chances that any potentially cancerous or precancerous lesions will be caught early and successfully treated. Your dentist will carefully inspect the following areas for sores, spots, and lumps:

  • Face, neck, lips, and mouth
  • Jaw and the side of your neck
  • Tongue
  • Roof and floor of your mouth
  • Back of your throat

Be sure to tell your dentist if you’ve noticed a sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal or a lump, pain, or numbness in your mouth or on your lips.

How oral cancer treatment affects your mouth

Soreness and swelling from surgery can make it uncomfortable to chew and swallow. The removal of large tumors may also affect your ability to speak.

Since cells in your mouth, neck, and chest are sensitive to radiation, radiation in those areas can make foods taste bitter or metallic or give you dry mouth. Other side effects include:

  • Sore throat or mouth
  • Tooth decay
  • Sore or bleeding gums
  • Problems wearing dentures

Chemotherapy slows down the ability of oral tissue to repair itself. It can also upset the healthy balance of bacteria in the mouth and result in:

  • Painful mouth and gums
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • Mouth and lip sores

Personalized benefits at no additional cost

To help manage the condition and improve oral health, HMSA’s Oral Health for Total Health program provides enhanced dental benefits for plan members who are diagnosed with oral cancer. These benefits are covered 100% with no out-of-pocket expenses when seeing a participating provider.

  • Two additional cleanings or periodontal maintenance visits per year (total of four).
  • Oral cancer screenings once every six months and fluoride treatments once every three months.

Members with health and dental plans from HMSA who have a diagnosis of oral cancer are enrolled automatically. Dental members who don’t have a health plan with HMSA can easily enroll online.

To use your Oral Health for Total Health benefits, simply make an appointment with your dentist. To find a dentist in your plan’s network, visit our provider directory.