April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month!
Cancer is a disease caused by uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in a part of the body. Oral cancer is a type of cancer in which these abnormal cells originate in the mouth. Cancer is classified by the original site of abnormal cells. Oral cancer kills approximately one person every hour in the United States. About 50,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed each year.
What are the different types of oral cancer?
The most common type of oral cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, and it occurs in the tissues lining the inside of the mouth or on the lips. Squamous cell carcinoma makes up over 90% of all oral cancer. A much smaller percentage of oral cancers develop in other types of tissue in the mouth, like the salivary glands causing adenocarcinoma, the lymph nodes or lymph tissue like tonsils causing lymphoma, or in pigmented tissue causing melanoma.
What are the risk factors for oral cancer?
- Tobacco use of any kind
- Alcohol consumption
- Infection with human papilloma virus (HPV)
- Chronic oral infections
- Persistent trauma to oral tissues
- Poor oral hygiene, lack of dental care
- Poor nutrition
Who is most likely to get oral cancer?
- People who work outdoors and have a large amount of sun exposure on their lips are at a high risk for developing cancer on their lips.
- People who smoke, use smokeless tobacco and/or drink alcohol have a high risk for oral cancer inside the mouth. Tobacco use combined with alcohol consumption creates a risk level that is higher than either one alone because they act synergistically together.
- People infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV) have a higher risk for developing oral cancers at the back of the throat and base of the tongue. Certain strains of the virus have a higher risk than others. HPV is the newest known cause of oral cancers and accounts for the changing demographics of oral cancer. Historically, oral cancer was a disease of old men who smoked and drank alcohol a lot. The average age of oral cancer has dropped in the last two decades, and it now affects more women than in the past.
- People with chronic infections and persistent trauma in their mouths have an increased risk for developing oral cancers. This means patients with untreated gum disease are more likely to get oral cancer than patients with healthy gums.
What can I do to lower my risk for oral cancer?
- Limit sun exposure and use SPF chapstick!
- Stop ALL tobacco use, both smoking and smokeless tobacco!
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Practice good oral hygiene. Treat any persistent infections in the oral cavity including cavities and periodontal disease.
- If you have an area of your mouth that is prone to trauma (cheek biting, a sharp tooth cutting your tongue), see your dentist to discuss treatment options to reduce the occurrence of this trauma.
- See your dentist for regular oral cancer screenings. At Timberlake Dental, this is included in every comprehensive and periodic oral evaluation you have with Dr. Chowning. In its initial stages, oral cancer is typically painless and easily goes unnoticed without a visual evaluation. This is why consistent oral cancer screenings are so important. Early detection is key!
- Perform a self-screening exam once every month.
What should I look for in my mouth?
Any ulcer, sore, blister, lump or abnormal tissue that does not heal within 14 days needs professional evaluation by a dentist. A very common presentation for oral cancer is an overgrowth of white tissue on the sides of the tongue or the floor of the mouth. Cancerous lesions can also be bright red in color. As you are screening yourself, simply search for anything that does not blend in with the surrounding tissue both by look and by feel. Because of some locations in your mouth being difficult to see, you may be able to feel something unusual without seeing it. Remember, oral cancer rarely causes any discomfort or pain in its early stages, so you have to be looking on a consistent basis to catch it early.
Monitor it closely, noting what date you first saw or noticed the lesion. Take photos of it, if possible. Any sore, ulcer, or bump that does not heal within 14 days needs professional evaluation by a dentist. Make an appointment with Dr. Chowning for an evaluation as soon as possible.
What is the treatment for oral cancer?
Treatment for oral cancer depends on the stage of cancer diagnosed. Early detection is the most important factor in beating oral cancer! The first step is always a biopsy of the abnormal tissue. Depending on the location of the tissue, this will be done either by a periodontist (gum specialist), oral and maxillofacial surgeon, or an ENT (for lesions on the tonsils or throat). Once biopsy results confirm a diagnosis of cancer, treatment will commence with the surgeon working in coordination with an oncologist and can include surgical removal of cancerous tissue, chemotherapy and radiation. Dr. Chowning will work in cooperation with your doctors to ensure that the rest of your mouth stays as healthy as possible throughout treatment.
More information on oral cancer can be found online at The Oral Cancer Foundation and the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons.