Oral Cancer- What You Need to Know

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, so we are using this blog to tell you the things you need to know about oral cancer.  Oral cancer is relatively common, and when caught and treated early, has a very good survival rate.  Early detection is key in beating oral cancer.

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

The risk factors for oral cancer are relatively easy to understand.  The level of risk compounds over time, so most oral cancers arise in people who are over the age of 50.  There is a newer type of oral cancer affecting younger people, and we will cover that in the following section on the HPV connection.

Tobacco Use

The greatest risk factor for oral cancer is tobacco use.  This includes smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, as well as using smokeless tobacco like chewing tobacco and dip.  It’s safe to say that everyone knows tobacco is a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent), and its presence in the mouth can lead to oral cancer.

This risk factor for oral cancer increases in correspondence to the amount of tobacco one uses and how long they have been a tobacco user.  This is why someone over 50 who has smoked two packs per day for thirty years is high risk for oral cancer. 

Alcohol Intake

High levels of alcohol intake also lead to a high risk for oral cancer.  This particular risk factor actually has an effect on another risk factor.  When you combine heavy alcohol intake with long-term tobacco use, the risk for oral cancer increases exponentially. 

Sun Exposure

Many people forget about sun exposure as a risk factor for oral cancer.  The lips are part of the mouth, and when you get “skin cancer” on the lips, it falls under the category of oral cancer.  People who work outside or receive a lot of sun exposure must be careful to use lip protectant (chapstick) that contains an SPF of 15 or higher. 

Chronic Dental Infections

The mechanism of this risk factor is not well understood, but there is a correlation of a higher risk for oral cancer with chronic untreated dental infections.  Both cavities and gum disease are bacterial infections.  Our bodies respond to infections with inflammation, and when we do not treat infections, we allow our bodies to enter a state of chronic inflammation.  This is not good, and it is actually linked with all types of cancer.  

The Need for Consistent Dental Visits

As we mentioned earlier, one of the most important things to understand is that early detection of oral cancer is the key to survival.  Oral cancer usually responds well to treatment when we catch it in its earliest stages.

Your dentist performs a thorough oral cancer screening of your mouth at every visit with a dental evaluation.  Your dental hygienists also inspects your mouth during your professional teeth cleaning visit.  When you see your dentist and hygienist on a consistent basis, it is very unlikely that any type of oral cancer lesion could develop and grow without detection.

Most people who miss oral cancer until it is in later stages are those who do not see a dentist regularly. 

How to Self-Screen for Oral Cancer

In addition to the screenings performed every six months by your dentist and dental hygienist, you should be inspecting your mouth at least once every month.  It is common knowledge that women should self-screen for signs of breast cancer on a monthly basis.  All people should screen the inside of the mouth for oral cancer on a monthly basis, too!

You can pair up with a loved one and use a small flashlight to evaluate the inside of the mouth, or you can perform your own using a lighted magnifying mirror.  The goal is to identify any tissue that looks unusual or abnormal.  There are wide variations in normal anatomy, so not every bump or color change is cancer.  Look for areas that don’t seem to blend in with the tissue surrounding them. 

We recommend doing this just after a dental evaluation in which your dentist has confirmed that everything looks normal.  Then you will know what your “normal” looks like. 

Keep an eye out for the following:

  • An ulcer that does not heal within 14 days
  • An area of white or red tissue that does not wipe off with a gauze or tissue
  • A lump that does not go away on its own within 14 days

Make sure you look under the tongue and as far back on the sides of the tongue as you can see.  These are the most common sites for oral cancer to start.

The HPV Connection

The prevalence of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) has skyrocketed in recent years, and certain strains of it are connected with a specific type of oral cancer.  HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, and a test from your medical doctor or gynecologist will reveal if you carry this virus.  The presence of HPV does not mean that you have oral cancer!  It means that you have a risk factor for oral cancer.

The type of oral cancer that HPV can cause occurs in the back of the throat, behind the tongue.  Unfortunately, this is not an area that you can easily see.  The best medical specialist to evaluate and treat oral cancers of this type are ENTs (ear, nose, throat specialists).

Have You Missed Your Oral Cancer Screening?

We know that many people are a year behind on their dental visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  If it has been longer than a year since your last dental evaluation, you are overdue!  Call Prosper Family Dentistry at 972-347-1145 to schedule a visit with Dr. Jill, Dr. Cara, or Dr. Summer.  We will perform a thorough oral evaluation with a cancer screening and alert you to any warning signs.

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