April is Oral Cancer Awareness month. In the past year, I personally know two people who were diagnosed with head & neck cancers. Other people you may have heard of that have had oral cancer are: Jim Thorpe, Ulysses S. Grant, George Harrison, Jack Klugman, and Roger Ebert.
Oral cancer includes mouth cancer, tongue cancer, lip cancer and throat cancer. Think it won’t happen to you? I’m sure all the people listed above thought so too. It’s estimated that over 43,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oral cancers in 2014, that’s 115 people each day in the United States alone! And 2014 was the fifth year in a row that the reported cases of oral cancer had gone up.
The main causes of oral cancer are the newly discovered link to the HPV-16 virus (the same one that causes cervical cancer in women), tobacco use and alcohol use. Only about 7% of oral cancers come from no currently identified cause. People who use both tobacco and alcohol have a higher risk of developing oral cancer.
Why is this important? The death rate for this type of cancer is higher than most others that we routinely hear about. The survival rate for oral cancers has remained very steady at 57% at 5 years after diagnosis. The death rate associated with this cancer group is high because often the cancer is discovered late in its development.
In the early stages, many mouth cancers can look like other things, such as a burn, a canker sore, or biting your tongue. They can be white in color, red or a mixture of the two; painless or painful. You can see some images online at www.oralcancerfoundation.org The only way to know for sure if it is cancer or not is to have a biopsy and look at it under a microscope. Most traumatic type injuries like burning your tongue on hot coffee or biting your cheek should heal within two weeks—as long as you don’t injure it again. Any area that does not heal within two weeks is an area of concern.
For years, visual screening by your dentist or doctor has been the gold standard in finding potential oral cancer. Recently, many new products have come on the market that claim to find oral cancer. Studies so far have not shown that they are any more effective than the visual screening.
What should you watch for?
- An ulcer or sore that does not heal after 2 or 3 weeks
- Difficulty or pain with swallowing
- Pain during chewing
- Persistent sore throat or hoarse voice
- Swelling or lumps in your mouth
- Painless lumps on the outside of the neck which have been there for several weeks
- Persistent numbness of your mouth or lips
- Constant coughing
- An earache on only one side which lasts for more than a few day
Of course, these may have causes that are not oral cancer, particularly if you only have one, but see your doctor or dentist to be sure.
What can you do to lessen your risk?
If you smoke, chew or dip tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, snuff, dip, snus, etc.) stop. All tobacco products contain a number of DNA-damaging chemicals. Tobacco damages cells in your mouth and throat and makes it more likely that cancer causing agents can get into those areas. The body also tries to get cells to divide rapidly to repair the area (rapid cell division is one aspect of cancer). Talk to your doctor or dentist if you need assistance with quitting. Many resources are available: nicotine gum or patches, prescriptions like Chantix, online help.
Reduce your consumption of alcohol. Alcohol dries the mouth, which may allow cancer causing agents to gain entry into your tissues. Heavy alcohol use also creates nutritional deficiencies that lower your body’s natural defenses.
Decrease your number of sexual partners. The greater the number of sexual partners you have, the more likely you are to come in contact with someone who has an HPV infection. The HPV-16 virus can be spread by oral sex or by contact with broken skin to an area of infection on another part of the body.
More information on oral cancer can be found at www.ada.org or www.oralcancerfoundation.org or by asking Dr. Robb on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DrJenniferRobb The Oral Cancer Screening is often done as part of your dental check-up (cleaning/exam). Mention this article to get a free Oral Cancer Screening during the month of April 2019 at my office. Call 440-960-1940 to reserve the seat we’re saving for you!