Oral Cancer: 10 Quick Facts You Need to Know

Healthy Smiles by Rita Tempel, DDS

This article was originally published in The Gettysburg Times, April 19, 2017

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and since dentists are usually the first health professionals to detect oral cancer in patients, I want to provide 10 facts to help combat this disease—one of the fastest-growing cancers today. Information is provided by the American Dental Association, American Cancer Society, or Oral Cancer Cause.

  1. The main risk factors: Tobacco is the primary risk factor, but an increasing risk factor is the sexually-transmitted disease Human Papillomavirus (HPV), especially the HPV-16 strain. Additional risk factors include excessive alcohol use, a high rate of exposure to UV sunlight rays, and poor nutrition.
  1. Symptoms of oral cancer: If the following symptoms do not resolve or go away after two weeks, see your dentist: an ulcer that doesn’t heal; sore throat; red or white patches; difficulty swallowing, speaking, or moving your tongue or jaw; or a lump on your neck, lips, or in your mouth.
  1. Who is most at-risk? Historically, men have been twice as likely to develop oral cancer than women, due to a higher rate of tobacco and alcohol use (defined as more than two alcoholic beverages daily). Since cancers of the mouth and oropharynx or throat take years to develop, patients are typically 55 years or older when first diagnosed. However, HPV-related oral cancer patients are younger and may not have smoking and drinking habits as risk factors.
  1. How do I get screened for oral cancer? The American Dental Association recommends that dentists provide oral cancer screenings as part of regular patient exams. It’s painless and only takes a few minutes. Your dentist is looking for any signs of the symptoms mentioned above.
  1. What are the statistics? The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 50,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2017, with nearly 10,000 people dying due to the disease.
  1. Where does oral cancer strike? Patients usually develop oral cancer in the tongue, tonsils, gums, throat, cheeks, floor of mouth, lips, and minor salivary glands in the roof of the mouth.
  1. How does oral cancer affect everyday life? Oral cancer can affect how you feed your body with food and drink, how you speak, the ability to kiss a loved one, or how you smile. Some patients have their mouths reconstructed, teeth removed, or areas of their tongue removed.
  1. Why is oral cancer often called “a silent killer?” The symptoms are often undetected or undiagnosed until a patient is in the late stages of the disease (stages 3 or 4) when the chance of survival can be as low as 20-30%.
  1. How do we as a society combat oral cancer? Like many cancers, early detection is the key. If caught early (stages 1 or 2), oral cancer survival rates may be as high as 80-90%. Regular dental checkups are essential.
  1. What can I do? Talk to friends and family, especially those who don’t receive regular dental checkups. Encourage them to visit a dentist regularly, not only for oral cancer screenings, but for increased dental and overall health.

Dr. Rita Tempel is the owner and founder of Gettysburg Smiles, a family dental practice located at 2018 York Road (Route 30 East), Gettysburg. For more information, see GettysburgSmiles.com, follow Gettysburg Smiles on Facebook, or call 717-339-0033.

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