You always think cancer won’t happen to you – then it does. Defined as the uncontrollable growth of cells, cancer invades and causes damage to surrounding cells. Oral cancer, which includes cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and pharynx, appears as a growth or sore in the mouth that won’t go away. Like all forms of cancer, it can be life-threatening if not diagnosed and treated in a timely fashion.
Like every illness and disease, there are symptoms that help doctors and dentists identify oral cancer. These include:
- Swelling or increased thickness, lumps and bumps, rough or crusted over areas on the lips, gums, or other parts of the mouth.
- The appearance of velvety white, red or speckled (both white and red) patches in the mouth.
- Unexplained bleeding in the mouth.
- Unexplained numbness, loss of feeling, or pain and tenderness in any area of the face, mouth, or neck.
- Sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within two weeks.
- Soreness, along with the persistent feeling that something is caught in the back of your throat.
- Difficulty or discomfort when chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue.
- Hoarseness, chronic sore throat, or change in voice.
- Persistent ear pain.
- A noticeable change in the way your teeth or dentures fit together
- Dramatic weight loss
Are you at risk?
Statistics released by the American Cancer Society illustrated that men are twice as likely as women to develop oral cancer, and men that are older than 50 face the greatest risk. An estimated 40,000 people were diagnosed with oral cancer in the United States in 2014.
Additional risk factors for developing this disease include:
- Smoking; Cigarettes, cigars, and pipe smoking all contribute to the development of oral cancer. Those who smoke are six times more likely to develop oral cancers.
- Smokeless tobacco, including dip, snuff, and chewing tobacco products, increase your risk of developing oral cancer 50 times over. Users of these products usually develop cancer of the cheek, gums, and lining of the lips.
- Excessive alcohol consumption. Those who drink alcohol are six times more likely to develop oral cancer than non-drinkers.
- A family history of cancer.
- Excessive sun exposure, especially at a young age.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV). Certain strains of this virus increase your risk of developing Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma (OSCC).
You should also know that more than 25% of all oral cancers occur in people who don’t smoke and who only occasionally consume alcohol. So, just because you’ve abstained from tobacco products for most of your life, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from oral cancer.
That’s why skipping your regular dental exams is a really bad idea. As part of your routine dental exam, your dentist should conduct an oral cancer screening. This includes feeling for lumps on the head, neck, face, and oral cavity. While closely examining your mouth, your dentist will look for any sores or abnormal discolorations in oral tissue, along with looking for any of the signs or symptoms listed above.
If anything out of the ordinary is spotted, your dentist will likely perform a brush biopsy to test a small sample of the tissue and analyze it for abnormal cells. It’s a virtually painless procedure. Though, if the tissue looks extremely suspicious, your dentist may decide to do a scalpel biopsy; a procedure that does require local anesthesia.
How is Oral Cancer Treated?Like many other cancers, treatment for oral cancer starts with removing as much of the abnormal cells as possible. This is typically followed by chemotherapy, radiation, and/or any other drug therapy used to destroy the remaining cancerous cells.
What Can Be Done to Prevent Oral Cancer?
Unfortunately, nothing is 100% when it comes to cancer. You can do everything right, and still be diagnosed with the disease. With that said, there are some things that can be done to better your chances of avoiding oral cancer:
- Don’t smoke or use smokeless tobacco, and only drink alcohol in moderation.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
– Limit exposure to the sun. Repeated exposure to UV rays can increase your chances of cancer on the lip, especially the lower lip. When you are in the sun, remember to use sun block on your skin and your lips.
Additionally, you can take an active role in monitoring any regularities and detecting oral cancer early. Here’s how you can do that:
- Conduct a self-exam monthly. Using bright light and a hand mirror, take a close look at your lips and gums. Tilt your head back and inspect the roof of your mouth, tongue, and under your tongue. Pull your cheeks out and examine the inside of your mouth, lining of your cheeks, and backs of your gums. Don’t forget to look at the back of your throat. You should also feel around for any abnormal growths or sores, and feel both sides of your neck for any lumps or enlarged lymph nodes on either side of your neck or on the bottom of your jaw.
- Make sure you’re making regular visits to the dentist. Even though you’re regularly examining your mouth, there could be spots or sores that are difficult to see. As recommended by the American Cancer Society, you should be screened for oral cancer every three years starting at age 20, and every year for those over the age of 40.
If you haven’t been screened before, ask your dentist for an Oral Cancer exam on your next visit. It’s a quick and easy procedure with the potential to save your life.
Schedule your appointment for a routine cleaning with Kingston Dental Center in South County, St. Louis, MO today.