How common is it?
When most people think of cancer, they don’t think of cancer of the mouth. However, this type of malignancy is more common and more dangerous than you might realize. About 53,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oral cancer every year, and more than 9,750 people die from it annually, in this country alone, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.
This particular type of cancer is often caught late, so regular oral cancer screenings are important.
Although oral cancer begins in the mouth, it’s often not noticed until after it spreads to other areas of the body, like the lymph nodes. Early detection of this cancer, then, is critical to its successful treatment.
Who is at risk / what are the factors?
Tobacco users: Using tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff, is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Eighty-five percent (85%) of head and neck cancer is linked to tobacco use. Pipe smoking in particular has been linked to cancer in the part of the lips that touch the pipe stem. Chewing tobacco or snuff is associated with a 50% increase in the risk of developing cancer in the cheeks, gums, and inner surface of the lips, where the tobacco has the most contact.
Heavy alcohol consumption: Frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol increases the risk of head and neck cancer. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk even more.
Gender: Men are twice as likely to get Oral Cancer than women
Age: People over the age of 45 have increased risk for developing oral cancer, although it can develop in people of any age
Prolonged sun exposure: High exposure to the sun, without sun protection measures, is linked with cancer in the lip area.
HPV: Research shows that infection with the HPV virus is a risk factor for oral cancer. In recent years, HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer in the tonsils and the base of the tongue has become more common.
Poor oral hygiene: Poor dental health or ongoing irritation from poorly fitting dentures, especially in people who use alcohol and tobacco products, may contribute to an increased risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
Poor diet/nutrition: A diet low in fruits and vegetables and a vitamin A deficiency may increase the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Chewing betel nuts, a nut containing a mild stimulant that is popular in Asia, also raises a person’s risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
Weakened immune system: People with a compromised immune system are at higher risk
Below, are some important warning signs to be aware of. If you experience any of these symptoms for 2 weeks or longer, be sure and se an oral health professional right away.
Warning Sign 1: Slow-Healing Sores and Ulcers
You may occasionally experience sores or ulcers in your mouth. These can include cold sores, canker sores, sores caused by irritants like smoking, chewing tobacco, cigars, heavy alcohol use, a weakened immune system, a sexually transmitted disease called human papillomavirus (HPV), a family history of cancer, or excessive sun exposure to your lips.
Oftentimes, these lesions do not indicate oral cancer and they resolve on their own within a short time. However, some sores and ulcers do indicate cancer. In these cases, they often heal slowly, or not all, and they may bleed. If you experience any sore or ulcer in your mouth that does not resolve after two weeks and/or that bleeds, you should see your dentist to rule out anything serious.
Warning Sign 2: Red or White Patches
Precancerous and cancerous lesions in your mouth can show up as red, or as red and white, patches. Oftentimes, precancerous lesions appear as white lines with red borders, or white patches that do not go away when you rub them. If you notice red or white patches anywhere in your mouth, including on your gums, the roof of your mouth, or your tongue, you should have it evaluated.
Warning Sign 3: Lumps
While oral cancer often presents without lumps, many times, it presents WITH them. If you notice lumps, thickening, or prolonged swelling of your gums, lips, cheeks or any other soft tissue of your mouth, you should have it looked at. You should also be seen if you experience swelling in your jaw or tenderness in your lips. If you wear dentures, any swelling that makes your dentures loose or uncomfortable should also be reported to your dentist.
Warning Sign 4: Oral Numbness or Pain
Sometimes, oral cancer can also present as numbness or as pain in your mouth. This is why any changes in the sensations in your mouth should lead to an evaluation by an oral health professional. This numbness and pain can occur anywhere in your mouth, including your lips, cheeks, tongue, or even on the roof of your mouth.
Warning Sign 5: Difficulty Chewing or Swallowing
Oral cancer can sometimes interfere with the ability to use your mouth normally. Chewing or swallowing may become difficult. You may find it difficult to move your jaw, to open your mouth, or to move your tongue. Any of these symptoms requires a trip to the dentist for evaluation.
Warning Sign 6: Voice Changes
Believe it or not, oral cancer sometimes settles in the voice box. When this happens, changes in the voice, such as hoarseness, can occur. You may also experience a lingering sore throat. If you experience any such changes, reach out for an evaluation.
Warning Sign 7: Loose Teeth
There are many reasons tooth can become loose, but sometimes, they can be a sign of oral cancer. If you get hit in the mouth or have an accident, loose teeth are likely the result of the facial trauma. Sometimes, periodontal disease and/or loss of bone around the tooth can cause them to become loose. However, teeth that become loose without reason should be evaluated for oral cancer.
We often see patients who end up not having oral cancer. The warning signs above are not by any means a guarantee that you have cancer, and they are not a death sentence. Rather, they are an indication that you should see an oral health professional for an evaluation.
Detection of oral cancer is challenging for a few reasons. First, it’s often not discovered until it’s already in the later stages before symptoms are present. Second, many oral cancer symptoms can also be symptoms of much less serious problems. Patients often choose to wait weeks or months to see if an issue will resolve on its own before seeing their dentist about it. However, there are warning signs you can be aware of.
The earlier oral cancer is detected, the better chance of successful management of it. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions you have about your oral health. Proactively addressing any new or unusual conditions in your mouth can help catch problems early on and increase your chances of a successful recovery.
Oral cancer screening is part of our routine examination. If you’re being seen in our office for your regular dental checkups, know we already check for this routinely. With this said, if you develop one of the above-mentioned symptoms and it lasts for more than a few weeks, please call us and come in to have it looked at. It is better to be seen and evaluated only to discover that you do not have cancer than it is to wait too long to diagnose and treat a malignancy.