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Are You at Risk for Oral Cancer?

Updated on June 1, 2011

According to the National Cancer Institute, about 36,500 new cases of oral and throat cancer will be diagnosed this year and 7,880 people will die from the disease, often because it is diagnosed too late. Here is sobering statistic reported by the Oral Cancer Foundation: among those newly diagnosed individuals, only a little over half will still be alive in 5 years… and these disturbing statistics have not improved very much in decades despite many new advances in our ability to detect and diagnose and treat the disease. How can this be? Unfortunately, the people who are at greatest risk may be least likely to have regular dental and medical checkups, for a variety of reasons ranging from health insurance to lack of awareness.

How much do you know about your risk for this deadly and destructive disease?

Lifestyle factors are chief among the major risk factors for oral cancers, and includes long term exposure to sun, such as would occur among people who spend their careers or leisure time outdoors. Heavy alcohol use is another lifestyle choice that increases risk; and tobacco use, regardless of its form accounts for about 75% of the cancers of the mouth, throat and lips that are diagnosed at 50 and older. When heavy alcohol use is combined with tobacco, the risk of developing oral cancer is 15 times greater!

Speaking of age, most oral cancer has historically been discovered in people over age 60. The Center for Disease Control reports that it occurs more often in men than women, and black people seem to be at higher risk than other races… but no one is really immune. About 5% of oral cancers have no known cause; and new evidence has emerged that the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV-16), a common sexually transmitted disease present in about 40 million Americans is responsible for an increase in the number of oral cancers among young adults.

Early signs of oral cancer are very often painless and difficult to detect without a thorough head and neck examination by a dental or medical professional. As a result the people who are inclined to put off dental visits – often those who have lost their dental insurance and postpone checkups for financial reasons – are most vulnerable. Oral cancer is treatable, but the tissues of the mouth and neck have a rich blood supply and numerous lymph nodes that enable undiagnosed oral cancer to spread to other parts of the body very quickly. Improving the average 50% survival rate depends upon the location and early detection of suspicious lesions – before they can spread.

What to be concerned about:

  • A sore in the mouth – especially a painless one – that does not heal within two weeks
  • A lump or thickening in the cheek.
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, lip, or lining or floor of the mouth.
  • A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat.
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing.
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue.
  • Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth.
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable.
  • Chronic hoarseness.

The American Cancer Society recommends that doctors and dentists examine the mouth and throat as part of a routine cancer-related checkup… and you should do a self examination periodically too: look in your own mouth with a flashlight or have someone do it for you:

  • · Remove dentures or partials
  • · Look and feel inside the lips and the front of gums
  • · Tilt head back to look at and feel the roof of your mouth
  • · Pull the cheek and both lips out to see the inside surfaces as well as the back of the gums
  • · Stick out your tongue as far as you can and look at all of its surfaces
    • Lift up your tongue to examine the floor of the mouth
      • · Feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes (glands) in both sides of the neck including under the lower jaw.

Many people have some harmless, abnormal lesions in their mouth that never become cancerous, but it is important to be aware of them and bring them to the attention of the dentist for observation and diagnosis. A thorough head and neck examination is always a routine part of your regular dental checkup visit; it takes only a minute but it could save your life.


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