April is oral cancer awareness month. While not as delightful as the other signs of spring – blooming trees and longer days – a focus on early detection is a beautiful thing.
While oral cancer (oral cavity and oropharynx cancers collectively) accounts for almost 3% of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States, it is responsible for 1.8% of all cancer deaths. The death rate associated with oral cancer is particularly high because it is generally not discovered until late in its development, which is why early detection is critical.
Because early-stage symptoms are often painless, many patients assume they’re non-threatening - think a white or red patch of tissue in the mouth, or a shallow lesion that resembles a common canker sore.
Conversely, the symptoms associated with later stages of oral cancer are harder to ignore. Patients should contact their dentist if any of the following symptoms occur for longer than two weeks:
- A sore that bleeds or doesn't heal
- A growth, lump or thickening of the skin or lining of your mouth
- Tongue pain or numbness
- Jaw pain or stiffness
- Difficulty or painful chewing, speaking, or swallowing (the sensation of food getting caught in your throat)
- Prolonged hoarseness
- Numbness in the oral / facial region
- Persistent earache in the same ear
- Loose teeth with no apparent dental cause
While oral cancer isn’t new, recent years have seen a shift in risk factors and population segments impacted. Historically, the primary risk factors associated with oral cancer have been age (the average age at diagnosis is 62 years), tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, and the combination of the two (the risk being greater for people who use both tobacco and alcohol).
However, recent data shows that the fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population is non-smokers under the age of fifty. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, a quarter of cases have no risk factors for cancers of the mouth (i.e. tobacco or alcohol use). This shift coincides with an overall decline in smoking and an increase in the number of young people diagnosed with oral cancer related to human papillomavirus number 16 (HPV16), a disease transmitted through sexual contact.
So, how can you prevent oral cancer? Aside from the obvious - avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption – early detection is key. This is one more reason regular dental checkups are vital to overall health. Not only do we examine the general health and appearance of your teeth, but also your oral tissues. This is important because tissue changes in the mouth that might signal the beginnings
of cancer often go undetected to the untrained eye but can be seen and felt easily by dental professionals.
It’s also critical for patients to have an open line of communication with their dental practice. Be sure to let us know if you’ve experienced any changes in your medical history - even if you think it’s not important. This is also where patient transparency comes into play. Be honest about your tobacco and alcohol usage; we’re not here to judge!
Additionally, the importance of self-awareness cannot be overstated. To help increase the public’s knowledge of oral cancer and the role self-exams can play in early detection, the Oral Cancer Foundation launched www.checkyourmouth.org. This website is packed with great information, including a how-to video on self-screening. So, don’t wait until your next visit – open wide and take a look inside today! If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms noted above, or have any concerns or questions, don’t hesitate to contact our dental team.