Are you at risk for oral cancer?


What African American men need to know

Most cancers are preventable. Because my practice focuses on oral cavity health I am particularly concerned when people are diagnosed with oral cancer.

About oral cancer

The term “oral cancer” includes cancers of the mouth and the pharynx (FAIR-inks), part of the throat. This article addresses the causes and the problems associated with oral cavity cancer, specifically: Main Content

  • Are African American men at risk of developing oral cancer?
  • What are the symptoms of oral cancer?
  • What should you do if you have symptoms?

Are African American men at risk for oral cancer?

​Yes, African American men are one of the groups at highest risk for oral cancer—but many don’t know it.

Most cases of oral cancer are linked to cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol use, or the use of both tobacco and alcohol together. In fact, using tobacco plus alcohol poses a much greater risk than using either substance alone.

It’s not just smokeless tobacco (“dip” and “chew”) that puts one at risk of cancer, but tobacco of any kind, including cigarettes.

The risk of oral cancer increases with age. Most oral cancers occur after age 40.

Certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) may also play a part in oral cancer.    These are often but not exclusively related to sexual exposure.

The HPV vaccine Gardasil 9® (Human Papillomavirus 9-valent Vaccine, Recombinant) is currently recommended for the prevention of cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers in women and anal cancers in both women and men.

Until now, it was not clear if the vaccine also prevented oral cancer in men. There is now evidence that it does. None of the men who received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine were infected with HPV strains linked to oral cancer, but over two percent of un-vaccinated men were infected with it, according to data from the first study to investigate the risk.

What are the symptoms of oral cancer?

Be on the lookout for any changes in your mouth, especially if you smoke or drink. Possible signs and symptoms:

  • A sore, irritation, lump or thick patch in your mouth, lip or throat
  • A white or red patch in your mouth
  • A feeling that something is caught in your throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving your jaw or tongue
  • Numbness in your tongue or other areas of your mouth
  • Swelling of your jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Pain in one ear without hearing loss

What should you do if you have symptoms?

See a doctor or dentist if any symptoms last more than two weeks. Most often, symptoms (like those listed in the previous section) do not mean cancer. An infection or another problem can cause the same symptoms. But it’s important to get them checked out, because if you do have cancer, it can be treated more successfully if it’s caught early.

Ask for an oral cancer exam. It’s quick, painless, and it could save your life.

The oral cancer exam

An oral cancer examination can detect early signs of cancer. The exam is painless and takes only a few minutes. During the exam, your doctor or dentist will check your face, neck, lips, entire mouth, and the back of your throat for possible signs of cancer.


Treatment varies based on the degree of involvement of the disease. If caught early, surgery may be recommended. If allowed to progress, then other types of treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy may be recommended. The point is to have an examination as soon as possible if oral cancer may be present.

“Are you at risk for oral cancer? What African American men need to know” is produced and distributed by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research in partnership with the National Cancer Institute, components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. Part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NIH is one of the world’s foremost medical research centers and the federal focal point for medical research in the United States.

David Hamlar MD, DDS is an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Minnesota. He specializes in craniofacial skull base surgery. He attended Howard University College of Dentistry (DDS) and Ohio State University (MD), and came to Minnesota for his fellowship in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. Besides medicine, he is a retired Minnesota National Guardsman achieving the rank of major general. His passion today is empowering Students of Color to achieve their dreams of entering the medical professions as well as other STEM-oriented careers.