Going to your dentist or oral health care provider every six months for a checkup and cleaning is part of your yearly calendar of responsible maintenance and care. Part of your exam is checking for early signs of mouth, or oral cancer, but it is also important for you to recognize any warning signals!

WHAT IS ORAL CANCER?

According to WebMD, cancer is defined as the uncontrollable growth of cells that invade and cause damage to surrounding tissue. Oral cancer appears as a growth or sore in the mouth that does not go away. Oral cancer, which includes cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and pharynx (throat), can be life threatening if not diagnosed and treated early.

The Oral Cancer Foundation explains that your oral health provider screens for oral cancer by conducting a thorough patient history and physical examination at twice yearly checkups. He or she also conducts a full visual and manual examination of the oral and pharyngeal (cavity behind the nose and mouth) regions, the tongue, and the head and neck.

A full social, family and medical history should be taken, as well as a personal and family history of cancer in general, and specifically - head and neck cancer. The exam should also include a conversation on risk behaviors, such tobacco and alcohol usage.

EARLY DETECTION SAVES LIVES

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIH), with early detection and timely treatment, deaths from oral cancer could be dramatically reduced. Oral cancer accounts for roughly two percent of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States and patients over 40 years of age are considered to be at a higher risk for oral cancer. Approximately 36,500 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer each year and approximately 7,900 will die from the disease. An average of 61 percent of those oral cancer will survive more than five years; the five-year survival rate for those with localized (oral cancer) disease at diagnosis, is 83 percent, compared with only 32 percent for those whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Early detection can save lives!

The Mouth Cancer Foundation reports 90 percent of those with oral cancer are heavy tobacco and alcohol users which increases the chances of developing the disease, and the risk is further increased with the combined use of tobacco and alcohol. According to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), a dentist who suspects cancer will immediately recommend a biopsy of the area, and if a positive diagnosis is made, surgery may be needed to treat the affected area, often followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy treatment.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

In between scheduled checkups, if you see or feel an abnormality in your mouth that does not go away after 10 days - two weeks, or recognize any of these common symptoms of oral cancer, see your oral health professional IMMEDIATELY.

  • Swellings/thickenings, lumps or bumps, rough spots/crusts/or eroded areas on the lips, cheeks, gums, or other areas inside the mouth
  • The development of velvety white, red, or white and red speckled patches on the gums, tongue, tonsils or other areas in the mouth
  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • Unexplained loosening of the teeth
  • Unexplained numbness, loss of feeling, or pain/tenderness in any area of the face, mouth or neck area
  • Persistent sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within two weeks
  • Persistent bad breath
  • A soreness or feeling that something is caught in the back of the throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Hoarseness, chronic sore throat or change in voice
  • Persistent mouth, ear or teeth pain
  • A change in the way your teeth or dentures fit together
  • Dramatic weight loss


RISK FACTORS

You can take responsibility for your overall health by making good lifestyle choices, but sometimes medical history plays a part in developing oral cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the following to be serious risk factors.

  • Heavy alcohol use: an average of two drinks a day or more for men, and an average of more than one drink a day for women.
  • Smoking (cigarettes, pipes and cigars) and use of smokeless tobacco products
  • Repeated and prolonged exposure to the sun
  • Infection with some forms of the human papillomavirus (HPV) specifically the HPV 16 type
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • If you have had oral cancer before, you may be more likely to develop it again


We have become accustomed to treating diseases upon diagnosis, but let’s be responsible for taking good care of ourselves BEFORE disease strikes. Dedicate yourself to being proactive as an educated and informed health patient and consumer, and acting as the captain of your own ship. Be the healthiest you can be throughout the rest of your life!

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