We recently shared on our blog about the in-office oral cancer screening performed at your regular dental cleaning. This month is Oral Cancer Awareness Month – a great time to share how you can back up these in-office screenings with your own awareness of oral cancer warning signs and when to report any concerns.
Oral cancer is cancer that forms in the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, palates, sinuses, and throat. If not diagnosed and treated at an early stage, these cancers can be life-threatening.
Risk Factors of Oral Cancer
Oral cancer is most commonly diagnosed among men. If you are male, you are twice more likely than women to develop oral cancer. Although this can be attributed in part to higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use by men, gender is also a risk factor in and of itself. Typically, oral cancer diagnoses happen most often among those 55 or older.
One of the most significant risk factors for oral cancer is tobacco use. Smoking and use of chewing tobacco dramatically increase the likelihood of oral cancer. Another significant risk factor is heavy drinking. Seven out of ten oral cancer patients are heavy drinkers. (Heavy drinking can be defined as an average of two or more drinks per day for men and an average of one or more drinks per day for women).
The HPV virus, a sexually transmitted disease, is also another risk factor for the development of oral cancer. In such cases, the diagnosis is more likely at a younger age and is typically a more treatable form of oral cancer. However, the difficulty is diagnosing early, as the oral cancer caused by this virus often forms in hard to detect areas.
Finally, as with many diseases, poor diet is a common risk factor for oral cancer. Low consumption of fruits and vegetables may increase your likelihood of developing oral cancer (and other diseases) over time. This is a good reason to eat healthy!
Warning Signs for Oral Cancer
If you are concerned that you are at risk for oral cancer, it is important to keep up with regular dental visits and your oral cancer screening while also watching for the following possible warning signs and symptoms (provided by the American Cancer Society):
- A sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal (the most common symptom)
- Pain in the mouth that doesn’t go away (also very common)
- A lump or thickening in the cheek
- A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
- A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat that doesn’t go away
- Trouble chewing or swallowing
- Trouble 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
- Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw
- Voice changes
- A lump or mass in the neck
- Weight loss
- Constant bad breath
Although many of these symptoms can be caused by something other than cancer, it is important to let us know if you are concerned about any of these indicators. A good rule of thumb is to communicate concern if any of these symptoms last 2 weeks or more so that the cause can be found and treated.