April is Oral Cancer Awareness month – a good time to remind everyone that regular dental checkups are often the first line of defense in catching oral cancer early. That’s because we see what’s going on inside that mouth of yours – and keep an eye out for any suspicious changes.
During your regular dental cleanings and exams, your hygienist and dentist are looking at more than just the teeth – we’re also looking at your lips, cheeks, tongue, tonsils, palate, gums, glands and lymph nodes. There are some areas of the mouth in which cancers are more prevalent, like the sides of the tongue, floor of the mouth, and lower lip.
Oral cancers include cancers of the mouth, tongue, tonsils and throat. While not as common as other types of cancer, the Oral Cancer Foundation estimates that more than 43,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year. 90% of oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, and can be treated with great success if caught early.
We all have irritations in our mouths from time to time such as cheek bites, canker sores, or burns from hot foods. But it’s important to call your dentist if any of these symptoms last for more than two weeks:
● A sore or irritation in the mouth
● Red or white patches on your inner cheeks, lips, gums or tongue
● Pain or numbness anywhere in the face
● Lumps in the mouth or neck
● Difficulty or pain with swallowing
● Scabs or blisters on the lips
When we find something suspicious in the mouth during a dental visit, we talk with our patients about what we see. If further evaluation is needed, such as a biopsy or CT scan, we send them to a specialist we trust. We have periodontists, oral surgeons, ENTs and primary care doctors on our healthcare team who carefully and proficiently examine and treat these areas of concern in the mouth.
How can you know if you might be at risk for developing oral cancer? Those at an especially high risk are heavy drinkers and smokers older than 50.
But, attention young people: The fastest growing demographic for oral cancer patients is actually young, healthy nonsmokers. The human papillomavirus (more commonly known as HPV) has been found to cause cancer of the oropharynx, which is the middle part of the throat including the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils.
HPV is sexually transmitted and is the same virus that causes cervical cancer. It is transmitted to the mouth through oral sex with an infected partner. Safe sex practices and HPV vaccinations may help prevent HPV infections of the mouth.
Similar to other cancers, oral cancers are treated with great success when caught early. With most oral cancers, patients have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate when the cancer is found in the early stages. Regular dental check-ups will serve you well in identifying any areas of concern early on. A wealth of information about oral cancer is available from The Oral Cancer Foundation.