Oral cancer often goes undetected for long periods of time. Early detection may result in better treatment outcomes and longer life expectancy. April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and there are a few things everyone should know to keep their mouths healthy.
Oral Cancer: What a Dentist Looks For
Oral cancer can appear anywhere in the oral cavity. This includes your lips, cheek lining, gums, front part of your tongue, floor of the mouth, and the hard palate. We also find it in the throat (pharynx). That includes your soft palate down your throat and the back section of your tongue. The most common spots for your dentist to check are the sides of your tongue and the floor of your mouth.
It is important to keep an eye out for any symptoms that do not heal on their own in about two weeks.
Oral Cancer: What are the Symptoms?
Symptoms may include:
- a sore spot or irritation that doesn’t go away
- red or white patches
- pain, tenderness, or numbness
- difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving your tongue or jaw
- a change in the way you feel your teeth fitting together
Talk to your dentist if you feel anything or notice anything out of the ordinary so they may do a full examination.
Who is at risk?
Oral cancer is typically diagnosed in people between the ages of 55 and 64 years. It occurs more often in men than women; however, it can happen to anyone. That’s why it is important to get yearly screenings from your dentist.
Some high risk factors include tobacco products and excessive alcohol consumption. The human papilloma virus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted, is associated with cancers found in the back of the throat, called oropharyngeal cancer. The HPV vaccine reduces the risk of HPV-related cancers. We recommend that all boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 12 years get the vaccine, regardless of whether or not they are sexually active.
Every year in the United States, about 45,000 new cases of mouth and throat cancer are diagnose, and about 13 percent of people die within the same year they are diagnosed. Being aware of any changes in your mouth and having a biopsy, if necessary, are important ways to catch the cancer early, which can double the 5-year survival rate. Seeing your dentist regularly is key to maintaining your oral health, and talking to them about any concerns you have could save your life.
For more information, ask your dentist or visit the American Dental Association website at http://www.ada.org.
Aimee DeLorenzo, DMD, is a general practice dental resident at the University of Vermont Medical Center.