While we’re quick to take note of the many benefits of regular dental exams, one important feature that’s included in the routine exams is the oral cancer screening in our Bedford practice. Early detection and diagnosis leads to early treatment, and your dentist is the first line of defense against oral cancer.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and I want to use this space to preach about the importance of regular screenings. About 53,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, and nearly 10,000 people will lose their lives to it in the same time. That means that (on average) a life is lost every hour of every day. In fact, of those 53,000, only a little over half will be alive in five years.
The death rate for oral cancers is higher than most cancers that we hear about more often, such as cervical cancer or Hodgkin’s lymphoma. What makes oral cancer so dangerous? The high death rate associated with oral cancer isn’t due to it being hard to diagnose, but because it’s routinely not discovered until late in its development.
In the early stages, it may not be very noticeable to the patient. It can prosper, grow, and spread without producing pain or easily recognizable symptoms, unless you have an oral cancer screening.
Oral and the related oropharyngeal cancers may appear in any of the following areas (and possibly others):
- soft tissues such as gums, cheeks, and the floor of the mouth
- tonsils or throat (oropharynx)
- salivary glands
Risk Factors for Oral Cancer
As with any condition, it helps to be aware of the risk factors. Keep in mind that sometimes diseases appear among people who do not appear to have associated risk factors, but awareness of your risk may keep you alert or even inspire healthy lifestyle changes that may minimize the risk. The following variables put you at increased risk for oral cancer:
- smoking and oral tobacco products
- heavy alcohol consumption
- human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
- being over 55 years old.
- poor nutrition, health, or compromised immune system
- genetics and family history of cancer
While some of these risk factors are beyond your control, some you can control. Quitting tobacco use, limiting alcohol intake, and healthy eating can all reduce your risk of oral cancer.
What Is an Oral Cancer Screening?
Because our dental team understands the importance of cancer screenings, they are included as a part of every dental exam. It’s fast and not intrusive, so many patients don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing. We visually examine the tongue, cheeks, and gums for telltale signs of oral cancer. A manual examination of your neck and face for lumps or swelling is also important, and your routine dental x-rays can highlight areas of concern for further investigation.
Be sure to inform your dentist and your physician if you experience any of these symptoms for more than two weeks:
- a mouth sore that doesn’t heal normally
- trouble swallowing or chewing
- persistent pain in the mouth
- a sore throat that doesn’t go away
- a white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsils, or lining of the mouth
- a lump or thickening in the cheek or neck
- trouble moving the jaw normally
- numbness in the throat or mouth
- persistent bad breath
- loose teeth
- change in the fit of dentures or dental appliances
Experiencing these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that you have oral cancer, but these issues should be addressed anyway. An examination will help identify the cause and treatment to help you get better. And if it is oral cancer, the sooner it’s diagnosed and treatment started, the better the odds of making a successful recovery.