Oral cancer affects more than 30,000 Americans annually and claims 6,000 lives.
The good news amidst these scary statistics is that like any other type of cancer, early detection is key to increasing the survival rate. That said, less than 15 percent of Americans report ever having an oral cancer screening.
With this in mind we screen our patients for oral cancer to ensure that it’s not just their teeth that are healthy.
What are the risk factors for Oral Cancer?
- Smoking. It has long been established that there is a direct link between smoking and the development of Oral cancer. It is estimated that smokers have a 10 fold increased risk. The more you smoke the greater the risk. 90% of mouth cancer patients use tobacco in some form. Ex-smokers (after 10 years) reduce their risk to that of non-smokers.
- Alcohol. High alcohol consumption increases the risk of oral cancer. If combined with smoking this risk is over 35 times that of non-smokers and non-drinkers! Drinking three or more units of alcohol a day increases your risk of mouth cancer.
- Diet. It is estimated that 10-15% oral cancers are caused by eating an unhealthy diet. The link between diet and cancer is complex. There is often an association with poor diet and smoking and alcohol consumption. It is known that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables can reduce the risk of oral cancer.
- Virus infection. Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection has been linked to some types of oral cancer. HPV is well recognised as a cause of cervical cancer (see link). HPV may account for 20-30% of Oral cancer cases. These patients tend to be younger and non-smokers or non-drinkers. HPV positive oral cancers tend to have a better prognosis than cancers caused by smoking or alcohol.
- Ill-fitting dentures are also a risk factor for developing oral cancer.
What are the symptoms of oral cancer?
The most common signs of oral cancer are an ulcer or sore on your mouth or tongue that does not heal. Other symptoms include a red or white patch on your gums, an unexplained lump on your neck, a recurrent sore throat, a croaky voice or difficulty swallowing and any unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.
Note many of these symptoms can be caused by less serious problems and it is always advisable to see either a doctor or dentist for a full check up should any of these symptoms last more than 2 weeks.
What type of self tests can be done at home?
Regular dental checkups that include an examination of the entire mouth are important in helping to find oral and oropharyngeal cancers (and precancers) early. Many doctors and dentists recommend that you look at your mouth in a mirror every month to check for any of the following symptoms:
- a sore in the mouth that does not heal (most common symptom)
- pain in the mouth that doesn’t go away (also very common)
- a persistent lump or thickening in the cheek
- a persistent 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
- 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
- loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw
- voice changes
- a lump or mass in the neck
- weight loss
- persistent bad breath