You come in for routine dental exams mostly with the intent of keeping your teeth clean and keeping tooth decay and gum disease at bay. At Legacy Smiles in Billings, MT, we know how important these routine exams are, but not just for those reasons.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Oral cancer is the largest group of cancers that fall into the head and neck cancer category. It includes such things as mouth cancer, tonsil cancer, tongue cancer, and throat cancer.
The Oral Cancer Foundation offers some sobering statistics:
- About 49,750 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer this year.
- 132 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer every day.
- Approximately 1.1 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with oral cavity and pharynx cancer at some point during their lifetime (based on 2011-2013 data from The American Cancer Society).
- One person will die from oral cancer every hour of the day.
The death rate associated with oral cancer is high because that kind of cancer is usually discovered late. When oral and oropharyngeal cancers are detected and treated early, the cure rate increases.
The staff at Legacy Smiles wants to keep you safe. We do a visual oral cancer screening at every routine dental exam. Just as we know what to look for in possible tooth decay and gum disease, we know what to look for in terms of oral cancer. And just as it is with tooth and gum problems, the earlier we catch an issue, the better the chances we can fix it.
Be Mindful Of Symptoms
Your mouth is one of your most important early warning systems. If you’re between routine dental visits, you can keep an eye out for signs and symptoms.
The American Academy of Oral Medicine has described some symptoms that could indicate oral cancer. Come see us between your routine appointments if you have any of these symptoms and they don’t disappear after two or three weeks:
- Difficulty swallowing, chewing, or moving your jaw and tongue
- Red or white patches in the mouth or lips
- Pain when chewing
- A persistent sore throat
- A numb feeling in the mouth or lips
- Tenderness or numbness in the mouth or lips
- A sore or irritation that doesn’t go away
- A change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth
- An earache on one side that lasts for more than a few days
Factors That Increase Risk of Oral Cancer
In the past, the people who are at a higher risk of developing oral cancer are those over 50 years old who are heavy drinkers and smokers. Today, however, HPV (human papillomavirus) is related to an increase in oral cancer in the younger population. The fastest growing segment of the oral and oropharyngeal cancer population are non-smokers in the 25 – 50 age range who are otherwise healthy.
Other facts about HPV include:
- White, non-smoking males aged 35 – 55 are most at risk.
- Every day in the U.S., about 12,000 people aged 15 to 24 are infected with HPV.
- The CDC estimates that there are 6.2 million new HPV infections in the United States each year.
- HPV16 manifests itself mainly at the base of the tongue, in the tonsils, and the back of the throat.
- The greater your number of sexual partners, the more likely you are to contract HPV.
- People who have weakened immune systems are also at a greater risk of HPV infections.
HPV And Oral Cancer
The best way to screen for HPV-related oral and oropharyngeal cancer is through a visual and tactile exam performed by a dental professional. The type of oral cancer related to HPV most commonly involves the tonsils and base of the tongue. Here are some of the possible symptoms of HPV-related cancer:
- A painless lump or swelling in the neck
- An ulcer or sore that doesn’t heal within two to three weeks
- Constant coughing
- Sore throat and pain when swallowing
- Swelling of the area in the back of the mouth
As is the case with any other type of cancer, early detection is key to the cure. In fact, oral cancer is an ideal cancer to identify early by screening. That’s why we make oral cancer screening part of every routine dental exam.