According to The American Cancer Society, over 50,000 people develop some form of oral cancer each year. Oral cancer can be cured in approximately 80 percent of patients as long as it is detected early. To keep your mouth healthy, learn how to identify oral cancer in its early stages, and take the following proactive steps to reduce your risk.
How Do You Get Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer occurs when cells within the mouth develop mutations in their DNA. These changes allow cancer cells to continue to divide and grow when healthy cells would normally die. As cancer cells accumulate, they cause damage to surrounding tissue and can spread to other parts of the body. It’s not always clear why mutations occur; however, experts have identified certain risk factors for oral cancer, including:
- Heavy alcohol consumption
- Weakened immune system
- Excessive sun exposure to the lips
- Contracting the human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Tobacco use of any kind, including cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, pipes and snuff
According to the American Cancer Society, men face twice the risk of developing oral cancer as women, with men over the age of 50 facing the greatest risk. Sometimes, oral cancer can develop without any known cause. This is why it is important to visit your dentist for routine cancer screenings.
Oral Cancer Symptoms
Treatment is more effective when the disease is detected, diagnosed, and treated early.
When examining the mouth for oral cancer symptoms, dentists typically look for the following:
- Bleeding sores
- Sores that do not heal
- Poorly fitting dentures
- Loose teeth
- Lumps, growth or thickening of the lining of the mouth
- Tongue pain
- Stiffness or pain in the jaw
- Pain when chewing or swallowing
- Unexplained sore, irritation, or thickness in your mouth or throat
Sometimes, it’s not easy to determine whether a sore or lesion is cancerous. If your dentist finds something irregular, he or she may recommend a biopsy to check for cancer cells.
How to Prevent Oral Cancer
While there’s no proven way to prevent oral cancer, there are a few preventative measures you can take to reduce your risk, including:
- Do not use tobacco of any kind.
- Avoid second-hand cigarette smoke if possible.
- Drink alcohol in moderation or avoid it entirely.
- Use UV-blocking lip balm on your lips.
- Exercise regularly.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Wear condoms and dental dams to prevent the transmission of HPV.
- Regularly inspect your mouth and lips for abnormalities.
- Make sure your dentures fit well.
- Visit the dentist regularly to allow for early identification and treatment of possible areas of concern.
According to research, you can also drastically reduce your risk of developing oral cancer by eating several servings of fruits and vegetables every day. The vitamins and antioxidants in fruits nd vegetables can boost your immune system and protect your mouth. There is also some evidence that green tea could help prevent and slow the growth of oral cancer.
Since anyone can develop oral cancer, it’s best to see your dentist regularly to check for potential problems. As part of a routine dental examination, your dentist will usually inspect your entire mouth for abnormal areas that may indicate oral cancer or precancerous changes. When caught early, oral cancer is very treatable. If left untreated, however, this type of cancer can lead to serious complications, including reconstructive facial surgery and death. To lower your risk, make an appointment with your doctor or dentist for a routine oral cancer screening.
This information has been reviewed by the Gentle Dental Clinical review committee.