Oral Cancer Awareness Set for April

Healthy Smiles by Rita Tempel, DDS – This column was originally published in the Gettysburg Times, March 15, 2018

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month and I have a challenge for everyone: Be sure to ask your dentist for an oral cancer screening at your next checkup, and be sure to ask all of your loved ones if they’ve been screened for oral cancer. This is vital for two reasons: One, because the statistics are spiraling out of control; and two, because oral cancer awareness among the American public is low.

Approximately 49,750 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer this year. This means that 132 Americans will be newly diagnosed with an oral cancer every day, and only 60 percent of the newly-diagnosed will live longer than five years. One person dies of oral cancer every single hour of every day. The death rate associated with oral and pharyngeal cancers remains particularly high due to the cancer being routinely discovered late in its development. These statistics are from the Oral Cancer Foundation.

Patients who do survive with oral and pharyngeal cancer (cancer of the mouth and upper throat) suffer long-term problems such as severe facial disfigurement or difficulties eating and speaking.

According to the American Cancer Society, 7 of 10 oral cancer patients are heavy drinkers. Heavy drinking, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is an average of two drinks a day or more for men and an average of more than one drink a day for women. If you are a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker, your chances of developing oral cancer increase significantly.

While smoking, tobacco and alcohol use are still major risk factors, the fastest growing segment of oral cancer patients is young, healthy, nonsmoking individuals due to a connection with the HPV virus. The sexually transmitted disease is now associated with about 9,000 cases of head and neck cancer—specifically those occurring at the back of the tongue, in or around the tonsils—every year in the U.S., according to the CDC. People with HPV-positive cancers have a lower risk of death or recurrence, even though these cancers are often diagnosed at a later stage because it develops in difficult-to-detect areas.

Now let’s talk about the symptoms: Please see your dentist if any of the following symptoms (from the American Dental Association) last for more than two weeks:

  • A sore or irritation that doesn’t go away, in the mouth or throat
  • Red or white patches
  • Pain, tenderness or numbness in mouth or lips
  • A lump, thickening, rough spot, crust or small eroded area
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue or jaw
  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth
  • Feeling like something is caught in the throat
  • Hoarseness or change in voice

Regular visits to your dentist can help detect oral cancers early! You know your dentist is looking for cavities during regular check-ups, but you may not realize your dentist can screen for cancer at the same time. Please “celebrate” Oral Cancer Awareness Month in April by talking to your loved ones about oral cancer. Better yet, schedule a dental appointment for you or a loved one, and share any concerns you may have with your dentist.

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

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