April is oral cancer awareness month—this is a good time to take heed and visit your dentist for a screening. Get involved—tell your family and friends—everyone should get screened, regardless of gender or whether you smoke or drink.
Is Oral Cancer Common?
Oral and pharyngeal cancer, cancer of the mouth and upper throat, combined kills nearly one person every hour, every day of the year, 24/7/365—around 9,000 individuals in a year. Of the people diagnosed with these types of cancers, only about 60% will live longer than five years.
Moreover, the people who do survive often suffer long-term obstacles, such as trouble eating and speaking or severe facial disfigurement. The death rate associated with oral cancer remains exceptionally high, not because oral cancer is hard to diagnose, but because the malignancy is being discovered late in its development.
Are You at Risk for Oral Cancer?
Oral and throat cancer most often begin in the flat cells, or squamous cells, that cover the surfaces of the lips, tongue, and mouth. Most of the risk factors for oral cancer originate from actions that can be avoided. Some risk factors include heavy consumption of alcohol, tobacco use, infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), poor nutrition, sun exposure, and history of oral cancer. Interestingly, oral cancers are 2x more common in men than in women.
The fastest expanding population of oral cancer patients is healthy, young, nonsmoking individuals due to the HPV virus. Public awareness is the only hope to save lives because we cannot stop the virus from spreading. Doctors urge parents to visit with their children about the risk of oral sex and the vaccination against HPV.
Schedule Your Dental Screening
Your dentist is not only interested in your teeth, but also the general appearance of your tissues. The American Dental Association developed recommendations to help your dentist check for oral cancers.
Your dentist can look for changes that could indicate disease—checking for signs of cancer is a routine part of your dental checkup. A cancer diagnosis cannot be made based off of a visual assessment—only a biopsy from tissue removed from the area can diagnose it. However, your dentist can recognize suspicious-looking areas or lumps that may need further evaluation.
If anything unusual appears, your dentist will likely reexamine you in one to two weeks; it is possible that the spot in question will heal during that time. Another common practice is your dentist may refer you to another dentist for a second opinion. You and your dentist can discuss what might be causing the abnormality and your options. Together, you will decide the ideal next step for you.
How to Perform a Self-Exam to Detect Oral Cancer
Along with routine visits to your dentist, self-exams are crucial in the early detection of oral cancers:
- Use a bright light and a mirror
- Remove any appliances, such as dentures or aligners
- Look and feel the inside of your mouth, lips, and the front of your gums, also known as gingivae
- Tilt head back to inspect the roof of your mouth
- Pull your cheek out to see the surface and the back of the gums
- Stick out your tongue and check all surfaces
- Feel for enlarged lymph nodes on both sides of your neck—this includes the glands under the lower jaw
What to look for:
- White patches—leukoplakia
- Red patches—erythroplakia
- Both red and white patches—erythroleukoplakia
- A non-healing sore that bleeds easily
- Roughened or crusted area
- A lump or thickening of tissue
- Chronic hoarseness or a sore throat
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing—dysphagia
- Pain when chewing
- Change in the way your teeth fit together
Screening is our best hope of decreasing the mortality rate from this condition. By participating in oral cancer awareness month, you are not only offering a rewarding service to yourself, but you are helping others see the value of oral cancer screening.