When we think about getting a check-up at the dental office, we consider that the dentist might tell us our brushing habits aren't up to par, could discover a cavity or two, or (cringe) deliver the news that we need a root canal. While each of these scenarios is less than preferable, they likely do not pose a serious threat to our overall health. However, research continues to show links between dental health and our physical health. And, one of those biggest connections comes in the form of oral cancer.
Over 43,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer in 2015. According to The Oral Cancer Foundation, this diagnosis will result in more than 8,000 deaths next year. An Oral Cancer Screening is a quick, painless exam that is part of most regular dental visits. During the screening, your dentist will check your mouth for tissue irregularities like sores, bumps, red and white patches, or other abnormalities. If anything is found, your dentist may recommend further tests such as a dye test, light test or biopsy.
The OCF reports that, "Historically the death rate associated with this cancer is particularly high not because it is hard to discover or diagnose, but due to the cancer being routinely discovered late in its development."
Here are several things you need to know about oral/pharyngeal cancer:
- The oral cavity consists of the lips, front part of the tongue, gums, cheek lining, the floor of your mouth (below your tongue) and hard palate (the rigid part of the roof of your mouth.) A malignant lesion discovered in this area would be considered "oral cancer". The soft part of the roof of your mouth, or soft palate, your throat, the back part and base of your tongue are considered part of the pharynx. Cancer discovered in these areas would be considered pharyngeal cancer.
- The most common symptoms of oral/pharyngeal cancer include:
- A mouth sore that does not heal
- Red and white patches in the mouth
- Scaly or crusty areas on the lips, gums, or other surfaces of the oral cavity
- Swelling, lumps, or eroded areas in mouth or throat tissues
- Unexplained bleeding in your mouth
- Unexplained pain or numbness in the face, neck or mouth
- Difficulty chewing , swallowing or maneuvering your tongue or jaw
- Ear pain
- Loose teeth or a change in the way your bite fits together
*TIP: A good rule of thumb is that any discoloration, sore, irritation, difficulty swallowing, or hoarseness that does not resolve within two weeks is grounds for a check in with your dentist.
- Some risk factors for the development of this type of cancer include:
- Being male- men are twice as likely to develop oral or pharyngeal cancer as women
- Smoking- regular smokers of cigarettes, pipes and cigars are six times as likely as non-smokers to develop oral cancer.
- Using smokeless tobacco- users of snuff or chewing tobacco are 50 times more likely to develop cancers of the gums, cheeks, and lining of the lips
- Human Papilloma Virus- specifically HPV16 has recently been "definitely implicated" in oral cancers, especially those that occur towards the back of the mouth
- Having a family history of cancer
- Excessive alcohol use- those who frequently drink alcohol are up to six times more prone to oral cancers than non-drinkers.
- Extreme sun exposure- Frequent sun exposure without proper sun protection, especially stemming back to a young age increases your risk for oral/pharyngeal cancers.
Be knowledgeable of the signs, symptoms, and risk factors associated with oral cancer and regularly see and discuss any concerns with your dentist. It’s an important factor in maintaining your dental and physical well-being.