Oral Cancer: How to Spot It, How to Prevent It
Cancer is defined as the uncontrollable growth of cells that invade and cause damage to surrounding tissue. Oral cancer usually appears as a growth or sore in the mouth that doesn’t go away. Oral cancer, which includes cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and throat, can be life threatening if not diagnosed and treated early. In the U.S., the five-year survival rate from oral cancer is more than fifty percent. If the condition is caught early enough, the chances of successful treatment are high. Dentists look for early signs of mouth cancer during regular checkup appointments, but it’s also important for you to recognize the warning signals so you can bring them to the attention of your dentist right away if any should appear.
What causes oral cancer?
Although the exact cause of oral cancer is unclear, there are certain lifestyle factors that can put someone at risk for this disease. Tobacco of any kind – cigarettes, cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco – increase your risk for oral cancer. Heavy use of alcohol also increases a person’s chances of developing oral cancer, and your risk is even higher when using both tobacco and alcohol. In addition to tobacco and alcohol, age and eating habits can influence your risk as well. Most oral cancers occur in people over the age of 40, and a diet that is deficient in fruits and vegetables can make it easier to contract. Keep in mind sun exposure can cause cancer on the lips. More recently, there has been a rise in a subset of oral cancers associated with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV).
What are the signs and symptoms?
Oral cancer can occur anywhere in the mouth, and because early detection is crucial in overcoming this disease, you’ll want to visit your doctor immediately if any of the following symptoms persist for more than two weeks:
- Sores, swellings, lumps or thick patches anywhere in or around your mouth or throat
- Areas of red or white lesions in your mouth or lips
- The feeling of a lump or object stuck in your throat
- Swellings that make wearing dentures uncomfortable
- Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
- Numbness, pain or tenderness anywhere in your mouth, including your tongue
- Pain in one of your ears but without any loss of hearing
- Persistent sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within 2 weeks
- Trouble moving your jaw or tongue, or problems with chewing, swallowing or speaking
- Loose teeth with no apparent dental cause
- Lingering sore throat or hoarseness
How is oral cancer diagnosed?
As part of your routine dental exam, your dentist should conduct an oral cancer screening. More specifically, your dentist will feel for any lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, face, and oral cavity. When examining your mouth, your dentist should look for any sores or discolored tissue, as well as check for any signs and symptoms mentioned above. If your dentist sees tissue looks suspicious, they may recommend a scalpel biopsy. This procedure usually requires local anesthesia and may be performed by your dentist or a specialist. These tests are necessary to detect oral cancer early, before it has had a chance to progress and spread. These screenings should be done every six months. With a positive diagnosis, surgery may be needed to treat the affected area, and often this surgery is followed by radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
How can I lower my risk?
When in doubt, seek prevention! You should already practice daily oral hygiene to prevent tooth decay and gum disease: brushing regularly with a fluoride toothpaste, flossing daily and limiting sweets. But by regulating certain lifestyle choices, for example smoking, alcohol use and sun exposure, you can significantly lower your risk of developing oral cancer. Ultimately, if you know what to look for and see your dentist for regular screenings, early signs of mouth cancer can be identified and taken care of before they become a serious problem.
If you have any questions about oral cancer, call Winning Smiles to schedule an appointment with your dentist – 716-332-2444.