If you haven’t given much thought to oral cancer, now’s a good time to start. This cancer affects more than 30,000 people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the five-year survival rate is only 50 percent.
Yes, these are depressing statistics; however, there’s a bright side. Oral cancers are largely preventable, and early detection can dramatically increase the survival rate. Here’s how you can lower your risk of developing oral cancer.
Avoid High-Risk Behaviors
Cancer of the oral cavity affects twice as many men as women and usually occurs in people over the age of 40. But the most important risk factors associated with this cancer are smoking and alcohol use. Recent studies have shown that more than eight out of 10 people with oral or mouth cancer were smokers. And heavy alcohol use combined with smoking puts you at greater risk of developing this disease than using either substance alone.
While tobacco use is the most important (and preventable) cause of oral cancers, other lifestyle and environmental factors can play a role. A strain of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV 16) is linked to a subset of oral cancers, and is a leading cause of the disease in younger nonsmoking individuals. And sun exposure is often the cause of lip cancer.
Know the Warning Signs
It’s important to recognize the signs of oral cancer, especially if you smoke or chew tobacco. Call a doctor or dentist right away if any of the following symptoms continue for more than two weeks.
- Unusual lumps, thick patches, sores or swellings anywhere in your mouth or throat.
- Patches of lesions (red or white) on your tongue, lips or in your mouth.
- Pain or numbness in your mouth or difficulty wearing dentures.
- A feeling that something is caught in your throat or a sore throat that won’t go away.
- Trouble speaking, chewing or swallowing or moving your jaw or tongue.
- Ear pain in one ear but no loss of hearing.
- Teeth that are loose with no dental reason behind it.
See Your Dentist Regularly
When you see your dentist for a routine dental checkup, he or she is looking for more than just cavities. Oral cancer screenings, which are quick and painless, are an integral part of your dental exam. Your dentist or hygienist will closely examine your face, lips, mouth and tongue (both top and bottom) for any visual signs of cancer and palpate your neck and jaw area, feeling for swellings. The importance of these regular screenings can’t be stressed enough—successful cancer treatment is dependent on early detection.
When it comes to oral cancer, it’s best to follow Ben Franklin’s famous advice: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So, if you’re a smoker, now is a good time to quit, and if you haven’t had a dental checkup recently, schedule an appointment today.