When you see your dentist regularly, they can clean your teeth, correct common issues like cavities, and help you keep your gums healthy. But there’s another way your dentist can help you stay healthy that you may not know as much about: spotting the earliest signs of oral cancer. The sooner cancer is diagnosed, the better, so a routine dental appointment can sometimes be lifesaving.
Know the Warning Signs
Cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the body grow and spread. In cases of oral cancer, this causes tumors to form in the mouth or throat, including the:
- Floor of the mouth
- Pharynx (the top part of the throat, behind the nose and mouth)
These cancerous cells can cause a variety of symptoms, including:
- Bumps or rough spots on the lips or in the mouth
- White or red patches in the mouth
- Unexplained bleeding, numbness or pain the mouth or throat
- Sores that do not heal within 2 weeks
- Chronic hoarseness or sore throat
- Unexplained ear pain
- Changes in the alignment of your teeth or the fit of your dentures
- Difficulty swallowing, chewing or speaking
If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor as soon as you can. The prognosis (outcome of treatment) for cancer is better the sooner it is diagnosed.
Common Risk Factors
Anyone can be diagnosed with oral cancer, but it is more common among some populations than others. The top risk factors are:
- Tobacco use. 85% of head and neck cancers are connected to tobacco use. This includes chewing tobacco, cigarettes, and pipes. There is not a safe way to use tobacco products.
- Frequent alcohol use. For head and neck cancer survivors, even moderate alcohol use can put them at risk for a recurrence of the disease.
- Gender. Oral cancer affects 2 men for every 1 woman. The difference between the genders used to be higher, but increased alcohol and tobacco use among women has led to an increase in cases.
- Exposure to human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. It has been linked to cancers of the oropharynx (the back of the throat).
- Age. People over the age of 45 are at a higher risk.
- Poor oral hygiene or lack of access to dental care. Poor oral hygiene may be linked to an increased cancer risk. In addition, regular dental appointments increase the chances of cancer being diagnosed early, before it spreads to other parts of the body.
These risk factors can increase a person’s chances of developing oral cancer, but it is still possible to get it even if you are not in a high-risk group. Regular screenings are an important part of staying healthy for any adult.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Although your dentist can detect possible symptoms of oral cancer, they cannot make a diagnosis. Instead, they will refer you to a doctor for testing. Cancer is typically diagnosed with a procedure called a biopsy, in which a sample of tissue that might be cancerous is removed and sent to a lab for testing.
If cancerous cells are found, more testing will be scheduled to determine how far the cancer has spread, also known as its stage, which can be 1 through 4 (usually written in Roman numerals as I through IV). A Stage I cancer has not grown extensively and is limited to one area in the body. A Stage IV cancer has grown larger or has spread to other areas.
Oral cancer is a serious illness that can be life-threatening. Once it’s diagnosed, it’s important to start treatment as soon as possible. There are different treatment options your doctor may recommend, based on the details of your diagnosis. Treatment may involve one or more of the following:
- Surgery to remove the cancerous tissue
- Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells
- Chemotherapy, which uses chemicals to kill cancer cells
- Targeted drug therapy, which uses drugs that stop cancer cells from growing
- Immunotherapy, which uses different drugs or procedures to help your immune system fight back against the cancer cells
How long treatment lasts will vary, depending on the plan your doctor creates and how your body responds to the treatments you receive.
Taking Care of Your Oral Health
There are important steps you can take to reduce your risk for oral cancer:
- Don’t use tobacco products. If you smoke or use chewing tobacco, it’s never too late to quit. Your doctor may have recommendations for programs or products that can make quitting a little easier.
- Avoid drinking heavily.
- Take care of your teeth and gums by brushing and flossing twice a day.
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
- Check your mouth in the mirror once a month to look for sores, redness or white patches.
- See your dentist twice a year for regular checkups.
If you’ve noticed any changes in your mouth, tongue, or throat, or if you’re experiencing any pain or discomfort, don’t put off a trip to your doctor. It’s always better to get potential problems checked out by a healthcare professional.
Anxiety-Free Dental Care Have you ever put off a trip to the dentist because of anxiety or discomfort? At LifeSmiles by Randy Mitchmore, DDS, we specialize in pain-free dentistry in a soothing, friendly environment. Whether you need a routine checkup or advanced dental solutions, we can help. Contact us to schedule your appointment.