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Dentist Explaining Tooth X-Rays To A Patient.

What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer

Dentist Explaining Tooth X-Rays To A Patient.

November is National Mouth Cancer Action Month, making it an excellent time to discuss what oral cancer is and how it can affect you. During this month-long event, healthcare experts and others organize activities and events online and off around the country to raise awareness about the preponderance and ravages of oral cancers and how to protect yourself from them. With that in mind, we’ve outlined the basic facts about oral cancer below.

What Are Oral Cancers?

Oral cancer is a general term for a variety of cancers that occur primarily in the mouth and back of the throat. They can develop on the gums and tissue lining the cheeks, on and under the tongue and at its base and the part of the throat at the rear of the mouth.

Oral cancers make up about three percent of cancers diagnosed in the U.S. annually, or approximately 54,000 new cases for year. While other forms of cancer are more common, however–such as cervical cancer or melanoma–oral cancers can be far more life-threatening, with just over half of all people diagnosed living past five years from the time of their diagnosis.

Who Gets Oral Cancers?

Oral cancer is most common in people older than 40, in men and in those of Caucasian descent. It’s also more common among smokers (and users of smokeless tobacco products) and heavy drinkers (ie. people who regularly consume alcohol to excess.) It’s more common as well among people who have a poorly balanced diet or a genetic predisposition for the disease.

You’re also at greater risk of developing oral cancer if you have human papillomavirus (HPV.) Keep in mind that most sexually active people have been exposed to the HPV virus. If you’re sexually active, consider asking your doctor to test you for HPV. Not only can this help you get treatment that may benefit you, but it also lets you know if you have that risk factor for oral cancer.

If you have any of these oral cancer risk factors, it’s even more crucial that you visit your dentist regularly for oral cancer screenings. If your dentist doesn’t already do so, you can ask your dentist to include an oral cancer screening in your routine dental exams. People over 40 should get an oral cancer screening annually, while people over 20 should get one every three years.

Another common cause of oral cancers include overexposure to the sun, especially while young. If you plan to be out in the sun, put on some sunblock that protects against UV-A/B radiation. Make sure to rub some on your lips as well, since they are one of the most vulnerable locations to cancer from excessive sun exposure.

Oral Cancer Statistics

This year alone, nearly 54,000 people in the U.S. will receive a diagnosis for oropharyngeal or oral cancer. The disease will lead to more than 9,750 mortalities, killing approximately one person every hour for 24 hours of every day. Only a tad more than half, or 57 percent, of those diagnosed this year will still be alive five years from now. This statistic has not gotten much better in the last several decades.

The death rate for mouth cancers is greater than those for commonly discussed cancers like cervical cancer, laryngeal cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer of the testes and others. If you include cancer of the larynx, the number killed each year from oral cancers rises to 13,500, and that’s just in the United States. According to the World Health Organization (WHO,) more than 450,000 cases of oral cancer are being newly diagnosed worldwide every year.

Contact our dental office at Gentle Dental of Pennsylvania right away if you discover any of these signs that last for longer than two weeks:

  • A lump, sore, thick patch or irritation in your mouth, throat or lip
  • A patch inside your mouth of white or red or speckled white and red
  • A chronically sore throat or the feeling like you’ve caught something in your throat
  • Challenges chewing, speaking or swallowing
  • Challenges moving your jaw or tongue around
  • Jaw swelling that makes dentures uncomfortable or fail to fit right
  • Ear pain
  • Tongue numbness or numbness elsewhere in your mouth

Diagnosing Oral Cancers

Since oral cancers can spread fast, it’s vital to detect them as early as possible. By getting an oral cancer screening, your dentist can identify early cancer signs before they progress into something more damaging and harder to treat. Oral cancer screenings are completely painless and last for just a few minutes. Your dentist may even conduct the screening during your normal dental checkup. During an oral cancer screening, your dentist will examine your entire mouth as well as your face, lips, head and neck, looking and feeling for signs of possible cancer. If your dentist identifies such a sign, he or she may take a biopsy to find out if there’s cancer in that area or not.

Treating Oral Cancers

If you detect oral cancer early, your dentist can treat it with radiation therapy or surgery; if your oral cancer has become more advanced, however, a combination of cancer treatments may be called for. This can include those just mentioned as well as chemotherapy and/or targeted therapy. Targeted therapy is a more recent innovation in cancer treatment that uses medications or other compounds to precisely find and attack the cancerous cells.

Your dentist may also refer you to an oral cancer specialist, such as a head and neck surgeon, an ear, nose and throat doctor (otolaryngologist or ENT,) a dentist who specializes in face, mouth and jaw surgery (oral surgeon and maxillofacial surgeon) or a doctor who specializes in treating cancer (medical oncologist and radiation oncologist.)

Other members of your oral cancer treatment team may include speech pathologists, reconstructive surgeons, plastic surgeons, oncology nurses, mental health counselors and registered dietitians.

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