Oral Cancer: What You Need To Know

It is estimated that oral cancer strikes 34,000 Americans each year.

Mouth cancer is diagnosed in about 100 new individuals each day in the US alone and a person dies from it every hour of every day. There are many types of oral (mouth) and oropharynx (part of the throat at the back of the mouth) cancers but around 90% are squamous cell (thin, flat cells that line the lips and oral cavity) carcinomas.

On average, only half of those diagnosed will survive more than five years. In 2010 it was estimated that approximately $3.2 billion was spent in the United States on the treatment of oral cancers.

While these statistics are sobering, oral cancer that is detected in the early stages of growth has an 80% – 90% survival rate. Paying attention to risk factors and being aware of the signs and symptoms can help with early detection.

Risk Factors:

Many of the following can be avoided by making lifestyle changes.

  • Tobacco/Alcohol Use – Most cases of oral cancer are linked to cigarette smoking or heavy alcohol use. If you smoke AND are a heavy alcohol user, you will have 15 times greater risk of developing oral cancer than those who smoke OR drink heavily. Smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco) is associated with cancers of the cheek, gums and inner surface of the lips.
  • HPV an infection with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (significantly HPV16) contributes to the incidence rate of oral cancers particularly in the areas of the pharynx, tonsils and base of the tongue.
  • Age- Risk increases with age due to aging cells that allow malignant transformation or compromise the immune system. This often occurs in people over the age of 40.  However there has been a nearly five fold increase in incidence of oral cancer in patients under age 40, many with no known risk factors.

  • Sun Exposure More than 30 percent of patients with cancers of the lip have outdoor occupations associated with prolonged exposure to sunlight. UV light from tanning beds can be just as harmful. Eighty percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure is acquired before age 18. Applying sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater will lessen your exposure.
  • Poor nutrition: A diet that is low in fruits and vegetables increases the risk of developing oral cancer.

Signs & Symptoms:

The ADA (American Dental Association) has developed recommendations to help dentists check for signs of oral cancer.

  • Red or white patch inside the mouth.

  • Sore or lump on the lips or in the mouth.

  • Bleeding, pain, tenderness or numbness in the lip or mouth.

  • Problems chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving the tongue or jaw.

  • Change in the way the teeth fit together.

Because oral cancer can spread quickly, early detection is key to oral health. During your regular dental checkup let your dental professional know about any abnormalities in your mouth or throat.

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