April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and though it may be wrapping up within the week, oral cancer isn’t something we should focus on for just one month. It’s something to remain vigilant about all year. With that in mind, we’ve compiled the following list of information, gathered from the American Cancer Society and Oral Cancer Foundation websites, to help you become more informed. Please keep in mind that this information is intended to give you a general overview only, and consulting your physician or dentist is always recommended for additional questions, concerns, and clarification.
Oral and oropharyngeal cancers affect thousands of Americans, with about 50,000 new cases diagnosed each year, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Oral cancer begins in the oral cavity, where your tongue, teeth, gums, front of the tongue, and the roof of your mouth reside. Oropharyngeal cancer begins just behind the oral cavity, where the soft palate, base of the tongue, tonsils, and side and back of the throat are. The different types of cells in the oral cavity and oropharynx can give rise to different types of cancers, all with different treatment options and prognoses.
Oral Cancer: The Numbers
49,750 new cases a year. 9,750 deaths a year (that’s 1 person per hour, 24/7). 57 percent survival rate over a period of 5 years. 2 men for every woman.
The statistics are staggering. But in many ways, oral cancer has yet to make its way into the mainstream consciousness of American culture. Because early symptoms are rarely noticeable, it can develop without interference for a long time before the patient seeks treatment. And several cases are caused by human papilloma virus (HPV), which doesn’t produce the telltale lesions that are often early signs. Common late-stage discovery and subsequent treatment difficulty account for the low survival rate.
Oral cancer most commonly occurs in individuals over the age of 40, though non-smokers under fifty are also susceptible. Other causes include frequent tobacco and alcohol use, as well as certain viruses (HPV being the most common culprit). Tobacco and heavy alcohol use damage the cells they come in contact with, meaning such cells must divide and replace themselves more rapidly… and accuracy can be sacrificed in the way of efficiency. Sometimes tobacco usage can even directly damage the DNA and lead to the mutations that spur the disease. And HPV can cause cells to produce proteins that inhibit cell growth regulation, which can also lead to cancer.
As mentioned above, many of oral cancer’s earliest signs and symptoms go unnoticed until its later stages. Some definite warning signs include pain or a sore in the mouth or on the lip that does not heal; a red or white patch in the oral cavity or oropharynx; a lump on the lip, mouth, or neck; a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing & chewing, and numbness of the tongue. For any symptom that lingers more than two weeks, consult your dentist or physician immediately.
Depending on how far the cancer has progressed, and where it is located when diagnosed, several treatment options exist. Through surgery, cancerous tumors can be removed, and the affected areas can then be reconstructed. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy target cancerous cells to slow their growth and destroy them altogether. Targeted drugs, which aim to fight the more specific causes associated with oral cancer, can be implemented in lieu of standard chemotherapy. And palliative treatment helps ease symptoms and maintain the patient’s quality of life for as long as possible.
What You Can Do to Prevent Oral Cancer
There are a few other things you can do to lower your risk and prevent the disease. Avoiding tobacco use is a great way to start, and quitting, even if you’ve been using tobacco for years, can still greatly lower your risk. The Health District of Northern Larimer County even offers its own tobacco quit program to offer support for those who would like to do so. You can also limit alcohol intake and avoid anything that might lead to contracting HPV. While we may never be fully able to erase the risk of contracting oral cancer, there is hope in every determined decision to make ourselves healthier.
The Importance of Dental Screenings
The screenings you’ll receive at every checkup with us help detect the disease early on. With early detection, the survival rate for oral cancer increases exponentially. This is why we offer in-office oral cancer screenings to all of our patients. During your oral cancer screening, Dr. Owens carefully examines the interior of the mouth, including the back of your throat and tongue, as well as the lymph nodes in your neck. If any abnormalities are found, a biopsy may be taken and sent to a local lab for further analysis. It is our goal to detect oral cancer in the earliest stages possible. If you think you may be experiencing any of these symptoms, please contact us to schedule an exam and oral cancer screening immediately.