Your periodic visits to your dentist’s office are essential to maintaining a healthy set of teeth and gums. But your dentist can be also your first defense against a more insidious adversary: oral cancer.
April is National Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Estimates indicate that more than 80,000 people in the United States will develop some form of oral cancer in 2017. If it is not detected and treated early, oral cancer will almost inevitably lead to some level of disfigurement, impaired quality of life and, possibly, death. In honor of Oral Cancer Awareness Month, therefore, our practice is making a special effort to broaden our patients’ awareness of the risks, symptoms, types and treatments around oral cancer.
Let me reassure you: Checking for unusual lesions, lumps or sores in your mouth is a regular part of your dental examination and cleaning
Oral cancer, like most cancers, is result of multiple factors, including lifestyle, environment and genetic makeup. Historically, a preponderance of occurrences is due to prolonged tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption and inadequate dental hygiene. In recent years, however, the disease has been increasingly linked to the presence of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV16), especially in younger adults. Recent data show that the fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population are non-smokers under the age of 50, even while tobacco-related cancers have begun to decline with the reduction in smoking.
Symptoms of Oral Cancer
Oral cancer can go unnoticed in its early stages because it is often painless and may lack an overtly physical character, so a close examination of your oral tissues should be a regular part of your regular checkup. Your hygienist, periodontist and dentist can see or feel the precursor tissue changes or an actual cancer while it is still very small or in its earliest stages.
While cancer screening is a regular part of your visit, you should not wait to contact our office if you notice any unusual changes in your mouth, including:
- a swelling, lump or mass that can be felt inside your mouth or neck
- a red or white patch of tissue
- a small ulcer that looks like a common canker sore
- pain or difficulty in swallowing, speaking or chewing
- an abnormal taste in the mouth
- prolonged hoarseness or difficulty speaking
- numbness in the oral/facial region
- swelling of the jaw that causes your dentures to fit poorly
- unexpected loosening of your teeth.
Many benign tissue changes occur normally in your mouth, and a bite on the inside of your cheek may mimic the look of a dangerous tissue change. But it is important to call us if you have any sore or discolored area of your mouth that has not healed within 14 days.
Treatment and Recovery
If we suspect that you have a developing cancer or a precursor condition, we will order a series of tests to confirm the diagnosis, including a biopsy. Treatment will depend on where the cancer is located and how advanced it is.
Patients with cancers treated in their early stages may have little in the way of post-treatment disfigurement. For cancer that is detected at a later stage, surgical removal of the affected tissues may necessitate reconstruction of portions of the patient’s oral cavity or facial features. Therapy may be needed to address changes in speech, chewing and swallowing of foods. In the most extreme cases, patients may need dental or facial prostheses.
The death rate associated with oral cancer is comparatively high, not because it is hard to discover or diagnose, but because it is routinely discovered late in its development. The United States does not have a comprehensive program to screen for the disease.
Cancer is always a frightening prospect, but we can help you minimize its impact through a vigilant, ongoing analysis of your oral health. As part of your regular dental examination, we can identify and treat precancerous conditions before they become cancer. If you do develop oral cancer, we can help you navigate your treatment options.
Talk to us if you have questions or concerns. And don’t wait for your regular visit if you think you may have a problem—call us today!