The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that each year, more than 30,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer in the United States. More than two-thirds of the cases occur in men and most are over the age of 60 years old.
Oral cancer can develop in any part of the oral cavity, which includes the mouth and lips, or the oropharynx.
The oropharynx consists of the part of the throat at the back of the mouth, which includes the soft palate, the tonsils and the back of the tongue.
While doctors can’t yet pinpoint the exact cause of oral cancer, there are a number of risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing it. The use of tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco, is one of the leading culprits. Heavy smokers who have prolonged use are at the greatest risk. Heavy alcohol use is another risk factor for oral cancer. Risk increases in those who drink and smoke. The NCI reports that 75% of people who have oral cancer have used tobacco, alcohol, or both.
Sun exposure can lead to cancer of the lip, and experts recommend the daily use of SPF lip balm to help reduce the risk. In recent years, an increase in the incidence of oral cancer has been linked to the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted disease. HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers usually develop in the throat at the base of the tongue and near or on the tonsils making them difficult to detect.
Symptoms of oral cancer include sores or irritations that won’t go away, red or white patches on the inside of the mouth or throat, and difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue. Common symptoms also include pain or tenderness in the mouth or lips, a lump or rough spot on the mouth or throat, and sometimes a change in your occlusion, or the way in which your teeth fit together when you close your mouth.
When you visit your dentist, make sure he or she is aware of your health history so he or she can be properly informed as they examine your mouth and throat for signs of oral cancer. The screening at your dentist consists of a visual inspection and palpation of the jaw and neck. Screenings can be performed at your regular dental checkups.
While regular visits can’t guarantee you won’t confront oral cancer in your lifetime, regular dental visits and screenings can lead to early detection – which can likely lead to a better outcome, in the case of oral cancer. It’s important to be aware of the symptoms and not to be afraid to ask your dentist about a possible symptom of oral cancer if you’re just not sure.
If you do receive a diagnosis, it is important to maintain the health of your mouth throughout treatment. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the first thing you should do before beginning cancer treatment is to see your dentist. After your treatment begins, you should make sure to check your mouth for symptoms and the NIDCR also recommends keeping your mouth moist by drinking lots of water, sucking ice ships or using sugarless gum or sugar-free hard candy.
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