Regular trips to the dentist offer more than the opportunity to check for cavities
and walk away with freshly polished teeth. These preventive care visits can help
detect illnesses and diseases, especially oral cancer, in early and more treatable
Oral cancer, as defined by the American Cancer Society, is cancer that starts in the oral
cavity. This includes the lips, the mouth and the throat at the back of the mouth.
Each year, approximately 21,000 men and 9,000 women are diagnosed with this disease,
according to the National Cancer Institute. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports
that the five-year survival rate is only about 50 percent.
Tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes and smokeless products, causes
most oral cancers.
Human Papillomavirus infection, which is contracted through sexual activity,
is being linked to more and more cases.
Additional risk factors include:
- Heavy drinking – The heavier the use, the higher the risk; the
American Cancer Society states that 7 of 10 patients with oral cancer are heavy
- Heavy drinking and smoking – The ACS reports that some studies
show this combination increases oral cancer risk 100 times more than in those who
do not smoke or drink
- Ultraviolet light – Increases the risk of lip cancer
- Gender – Men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer, but the
numbers have increased among women in recent years.
- Age – Most common in individuals older than 60; however, the average
age is dropping due to an increase in cases among younger men
- Diet – Many studies link increased risk to a diet low in fruits
Cancer Institute lists the following as symptoms of oral cancers:
- Patches inside your mouth or on your lips:
- White patches (leukoplakia) are the most common. White patches sometimes become
- Mixed red and white patches (erythroleukoplakia) are more likely than white patches to become
- Red patches (erythroplakia) are brightly colored, smooth areas that often become
- A sore on your lip or in your mouth that doesn't heal
- Bleeding in your mouth
- Loose teeth
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Difficulty wearing dentures
- A lump in your neck
- An earache that doesn't go away
- Numbness of lower lip and chin
Regular dental exams play an important role in early detection and treatment of
oral cancer. It may be elusive until more advanced stages since its symptoms tend
to overlap with other health and dental problems. On the other hand, the National Cancer Institute reminds people that usually the
symptoms listed above are not from cancer, but rather are linked to another health
problem. Staying on top of preventive care by visiting your health care and dental
providers regularly—and more often when you detect concerns—will help track changes
to your health, so you both know what is cause for alarm and what is not. If you
don’t have health insurance, consider purchasing a plan to make care more affordable.
Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research outlines a typical oral health
screening as follows; it’s a painless and simple procedure that takes only a couple
- Preparing for the exam: If you have dentures (plates) or partials, you will be asked
to remove them.
- Your health care provider will inspect your face, neck, lips and mouth to look for
any signs of cancer.
- With both hands, he or she will feel the area under your jaw and the side of your
neck, checking for lumps that may suggest cancer.
- He or she will then look at and feel the insides of your lips and cheeks to check
for possible signs of cancer, such as red and/or white patches.
- Next, your provider will have you stick out your tongue so it can be checked for
swelling or abnormal color or texture.
- Using gauze, he or she will then gently pull your tongue to one side, then the other,
to check the base of your tongue. The underside of your tongue will also be checked.
- In addition, he or she will look at the roof and floor of your mouth, as well as
the back of your throat.
- Finally, your provider will put one finger on the floor of your mouth and, with
the other hand under your chin, gently press down to check for lumps or sensitivity.
If a clinical exam reveals areas of concern, your dentist may use dyes and lights
or a biopsy to explore the issue further.
Take time to self-screen as well. Look and feel for changes such as lumps, sores
that don’t heal, and other symptoms, as listed above. If you have concerns, schedule
an appointment with your dentist to discuss them.
If cost or lack of insurance prevents you from seeing a dentist, keep in mind that
Oral Cancer Awareness Month takes place each April. In many communities, various
organizations and practices hold free oral cancer screenings to create awareness.
The American Dental
Association states that finding and removing epithelial dysplasias—lesions
that may become cancerous—before they become cancers is one of the most effective
methods for reducing the incidence of cancer.
Healthy lifestyle habits that may decrease risk include:
- Limiting exposure to UV light and protecting your skin
- Eating a healthy diet
- Avoiding tobacco
- Minimizing alcohol use
- Getting an HPV vaccine
- Practicing safe sexual activity
Remember: Visit your dentist routinely, and schedule additional appointments when
concerns arise—don’t hold out until your preventive visit; it may be too late!
For more information on oral cancer and its treatment, visit the following trusted
The American Cancer Society
The National Cancer Institute
The Oral Cancer Foundation
The American Dental
Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research