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Oral Cancer Facts

Published August 17, 2018

Cancer touches the lives of nearly everyone in one way or another. When considering cancer, oral cancer isn’t typically the first type to consider. Therefore, the goal of this article is to familiarize you with this deadly disease.

Oral and pharyngeal cancer is a subset of the head and neck cancers that affect the mouth and upper throat. In the US, there are around fifty thousand people diagnosed per year of which approximately 60% will survive 5 years. Unfortunately, many who do survive suffer long term problems such as facial disfigurement or problems eating or speaking. Because of this, it is important to catch the disease early but that can be quite difficult.

Many times oral cancer has no symptoms in the early stages and is not caught until it has advanced in stage. When symptoms are present the difficulty is that those symptoms often mask as other problems. Therefore if you have any of the following signs and symptoms persist beyond 2-3 weeks it is important to see a doctor:

  • Lumps, bumps, sores, or wart like masses

  • Pain or difficulty swallowing or chewing

  • Sore throat, hoarseness or difficulty speaking clearly

  • Numbness in the mouth or face or ear pain on one side

  • Progressive swelling, large lymph nodes or shifting teeth

Similar to breast cancer, self-exams and professional exams are recommended to help detect oral cancer. When you brush and floss your teeth in front of the bathroom mirror, occasionally take a look around your mouth. This will familiarize you with what ‘normal’ looks like and will also allow you to realize when something is amiss. There are several websites that will walk you through self-exams for oral cancer.

Most dentists will also examine your mouth and head and neck region for obvious signs of oral cancer. Because many of the signs are not actually cancer, it usually advised to wait 2-3 weeks to re-evaluate as most signs and symptoms will subside on their own. If they persist, a biopsy is typically recommended. Thankfully, most biopsies come back as not being cancerous, but due to the high mortality rate for oral cancer, it is still advisable to error on the safe side.

There are some lifestyle choices that are known to be risk factors for oral cancer and other factors that you can’t control. These risk factors aren’t direct causes, but rather give you a higher chance of being diagnosed:

  • Smoking and smokeless tobacco use

  • Excessive alcohol consumption

  • Poor oral hygiene

  • Age – over 40 years old

  • Gender – men are twice as likely

  • HPV infection

  • Diet low in fruits and vegetables

Human Papilloma Virus is an important factor in oral cancer and is better known for its role in cervical cancer. Recent findings have noted that 70% of oral cancer is caused by HPV infection and the vaccine available and recommended for teenagers lowers these types of HPV infections 88%. Given the controversy in some circles with the vaccine, it is wise to consider that it is not just protecting against sexually transmitted diseases.

For those who are diagnosed with oral cancer, treatment is challenging and life changing. Many times large portions of the tongue, throat, or face need to be removed by a surgeon followed by radiation or chemotherapy. Those who are diagnosed once are twenty times likely to have a second diagnosis. Therefore, the best advice to lower your risk of acquiring oral cancer is to live a healthy lifestyle; eat your fruits and vegetables, don’t smoke or chew, don’t drink alcohol excessively, brush and floss, and be sexually responsible. Even all that doesn’t guarantee you will prevent oral cancer, so remember to do self-exams and have regular check-ups.

Originally written for publication in the Capital Democrat Staying Healthy Column August 2018

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