Oral Cancer and What You Can Do About It

With spring in full swing here in Prairie Village, many of us are going through the familiar routines of the season: cleaning house, outdoor activities, and enjoying the good weather. Following this year’s tough winter, spring holds the promise of rejuvenation. Your oral health should also be on your to-do list! April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s a great time to come in for a check up and an oral cancer screening.

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is a disease that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. Oral cancer includes all cancers of the head and neck:

Collectively, oral cancer is more deadly than cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, testicular cancer, thyroid cancer, or skin cancer.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, 54,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, and each year 13,500 people die from oral cancer.

“Oral cancer only happens to people who use tobacco. I don’t, so I don’t need to worry about it.”

Many people don’t know just how at risk they are, because they make assumptions about their own risk based on outdated information.

It is true that those who use tobacco are at a greatly increased risk of developing oral cancer (as well as those who abuse alcohol). It is also true that in the relatively recent past, tobacco use was considered the top cause of oral cancer.

This is a potentially deadly assumption. Tobacco use is falling out of favor across the country. Fewer people smoke now than they ever have, so how is oral cancer still a problem?

It shocks many people to find out that 25% of oral cancer diagnoses occur in people who don’t use tobacco and are in generally good health. Even worse, people aged 25 – 50 are the fastest growing demographic among those who are diagnosed. So even as tobacco use trends down, oral cancer is as strong as ever. What’s the cause?

HPV (human papillomavirus)

Many of us might be aware of the link between HPV and cervical cancer, but the virus is now also responsible for the majority of oral cancer cases in the US.

80% of Americans will be infected with HPV at some point; there is no test to find out if you have HPV, nor is there a cure. The majority of people with HPV (99%) will never experience any symptoms. Cancers caused by HPV can take years to develop after infection, and because most will show no obvious signs of infection, they may never be aware of their risk for cancer of any kind.

Stay Vigilant!

This disease can be treated and is survivable, but like most cancers it must be diagnosed early on.

At home, conduct self-examinations. They aren’t difficult and take very little time; you only need to self-exam once a month. WebMD provides a good set of guidelines for how to conduct your self-examination. Click here to learn more They aren’t difficult and are worth the small amount of time they take to do. Check out WebMD’s simple how-to page by clicking here.

Be on the lookout for these possible signs of oral cancer:

  • Unusual coloration on or around the mouth (red, speckled, or white)
  • Sores on or around the mouth that persist for two weeks
  • A mass that you can feel in your mouth or your throat
  • Unusual pain or discomfort in the face, neck, or mouth
  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Unexplained numbness
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Chronic hoarseness
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Changes in your voice
  • Ear pain (when you’re sure you don’t have an ear infection, or there is no other obvious explanation)
  • The fit of your teeth or dentures seems “off”
  • Sudden weight loss

If you do notice any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your dentist as soon as you can. Make sure to see your dentist regularly!

What to Expect During an Oral Cancer Screening

Most people see their dentists more than they do their primary care physicians. See your dentist at least twice a year, every six months. Oral cancer screenings are a routine part of a routine dental exam; in fact, you’ve probably been getting screenings and not even been aware of it!

Oral cancer screenings are usually pretty simple and shouldn’t cause you any discomfort. Your dentist will look into your mouth for visual signs of a problem, and use gloved fingers to feel for any abnormalities. If your dentist does find anything suspicious, a biopsy of your oral tissue might be in order. This may cause some mild discomfort, but the peace of mind you get in exchange is well worth it.

Make an Appointment Today!

Making an appointment with Prairie Village Dentists is easy: just click here and fill out the online form, or call us at 913-649-5600! If you’re a new patient, make sure to ask about specials for first-timers at our office!

If you’d like to learn more about oral cancer, click here to go to the Oral Cancer Foundation’s website.