The 411 on Oral Cancer

Finding out that you have any type of cancer is scary. We can often overlook glaring symptoms just because we don’t want to hear the truth and then have to face whatever comes next. April is Oral Cancer Awareness month and we think we have to tackle cancer head on. The more information and insight you have about symptoms and treatment options, the more prepared you are to take a proactive approach to your health. We can’t shove cancer under the proverbial rug, so let’s get educated instead!

First, Let’s Get the Facts Straight

Most of us have probably had a canker sore or blister in our mouth at some point in time. Using rinses and antibiotics will usually get rid of these irritants fairly quickly. But, what if the sore lasts for weeks, or even months? What if you have a growth somewhere on the tongue, cheek or gums?  How are you supposed to know what is normal and what is not?

Here are some important facts about oral cancer that you should become familiar with:

  • Oral cancer goes beyond just the inside of the mouth. It can also include the lips, sinuses and throat.
  • The American Cancer Society did a report in 2014 that showed over 40,000 cases of oral cancer in that year.
  • Tobacco, whether in cigarettes or smokeless form, increases your chance of oral cancer.
  • In addition to tobacco, excessive alcohol use will increase your chances of getting oral cancer.
  • HPV, a virus that is also known to increase a woman’s chance of cervical cancer, has also been linked to oral cancer.

Next, We Should Talk Signs and Symptoms

Besides a long-lasting (over two weeks) open sore or a large growth inside the mouth, you should also be watching for any of these symptoms:

  • Swelling or thickening
  • Rough, crusty areas
  • White, red or speckled patches
  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Unexplained numbness
  • Pain or tenderness in the face, mouth or neck
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking. A feeling like something is stuck in your throat.
  • Ear pain
  • Changes in your teeth
  • Chronic sore throat

Any of these symptoms can be signs of other conditions and do not necessarily mean you have cancer. But, even having one of these signs warrants a trip to the dentist.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your dentist will examine your mouth and take biopsies of the areas that are suspicious. Biopsies are the best way to determine if it is cancer or not. Once you have a positive diagnosis, the cancer cells and surrounding tissue will be removed. You may need to have radiation treatments or chemotherapy, depending on the severity of the cancer. There are always side effects to these treatments that you should discuss with your dentist or oncologist before beginning treatment.

Prevention Goes A Long Way

Cancer does not discriminate and sometimes you do all the right things but still end up with a positive diagnosis. This doesn’t mean that you should just leave your health to chance. There are several ways that you can reduce your risk of getting oral cancer:

  • Limit your sun exposure and wear lip balm that contains sunscreen
  • Don’t smoke, dip or chew tobacco products
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you consume
  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Visit your dentist for regular visits every six months. Your dentist will screen for oral cancer at each of these visits. During an examination, a dentist may be able to see lesions or growths that you may not have noticed. These exams are essential to catching oral cancer early.
  • Conduct self-exams at home. Look in the mirror and check for abnormalities on the gums, tongue, inside the cheeks and on the inside of the lips. Take your finger and feel around for lumps or growths on the roof of the mouth, underneath the tongue or along the inside of the cheeks.

If you have any concerns, it is better to call your dentist and get checked out immediately. Waiting for your next regularly scheduled appointment can be detrimental as the cancer will have time to spread and grow. Don’t ignore any symptoms or downplay how you are feeling. If caught early, there is a high survival rate for oral cancer. The American Cancer Society rates the overall one year survival of oral cancer patients at 81 percent and the five-year survival rate at 56%. These numbers are great incentive for not postponing your oral healthcare.