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Oral Cancer; What to Watch For & How to Prevent It

Oral Cancer Awareness

April is “Oral Cancer Awareness Month”, so we thought we would share a few facts with our readers this month.

According to the CDC, “Each year, more than 30,000 new cases of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx are diagnosed and over 8,000 deaths due to oral cancer occur. The 5-year survival rate for these cancers is only about 50 percent. Mortality from oral cancer is nearly twice as high in some minorities (especially black males) as it is in whites.”

So What Exactly is Oral Cancer?

Oral or Mouth cancer refers to cancer that develops in any of the parts that make up the mouth. Cancer of the mouth can occur on the:

  • Lips
  • Gums
  • Tongue
  • Inside lining of the cheeks
  • Roof of the mouth

Methods used to treat oral cancer can get quite costly, including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Preventing the cancer by eliminating or reducing high risk behaviors such as cigarette, cigar or pipe smoking, use of smokeless tobacco, and excessive use of alcohol may make the difference. Early detection is key to increasing the survival rate for these cancers.

Are You At Risk?

In the U.S., it was estimated that over 40,000 people were diagnosed with oral cancer in 2014.  According to the American Cancer Society, men face twice the risk of developing oral cancer as women, and men who are over age 50 face the greatest risk.

Risk factors for the development of oral cancer include:

Smokers – Cigarette, cigar, or pipe smokers are six times more likely than nonsmokers to develop oral cancers.
Smokeless tobacco users – Users of “non-cigarette” tobacco products are 50 times more likely to develop cancers of the cheek, gums, and lining of the lips.
Excessive alcohol drinkers – Oral cancers are about six times more common in drinkers than in nondrinkers.
Family genetics – Family history of cancer.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) – Certain HPV strains are etiologic risk factors for Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma (OSCC)

This is only a list of preventative measures and risk factors, but it does always determine who will or will not be diagnosed with oral cancer. It is important to note that over 25% of all oral cancers occur in people who do not smoke and who only drink alcohol occasionally.

Diagnosing Oral Cancer

Regular dental exams are a vital part of early detection.  Your dentist will know you and your mouth and when they see anything different.

Your dentist can also conduct an oral cancer screening during your routine dental exam.
This may include feeling for any lumps or tissue changes in your mouth, neck, head or face.  While examining your mouth, they will look for discolored or “splotchy” colored tissue.

If something suspicious is found, the next step may include a biopsy.  This is a painless test that involves taking a small sample of the tissue in question and having it analyzed.
These tests are necessary to detect oral cancer early, before it has had a chance to spread.

Recommendations from The American Cancer Society

Everyone over 20 years of age should have an oral cancer exams every 3 years, and annually at the age of 40 and older. Talk to your dentist during your next dental appointment and ask for an oral exam. Early detection can improve the chance of successful treatment.