Oral Cancer Don't Wait Until It's Too Late
Approximately 42,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. Oral cancer results in over 8,000 deaths per year, which amounts to one person per hour, 24 hours per day. More importantly, only 57% of those diagnosed will be alive in five years. This makes the death rate for oral cancer higher than that of cervical cancer and skin cancer (malignant melanoma).
Interestingly, the reason the death rate is so high is not because oral cancer is so difficult to detect or diagnose, but because most often it is not discovered until it is already in the late stages. And the most common reason it is not discovered in the U.S. is that roughly half the population does not visit the dentist on a routine basis.
Another obstacle to early discovery (and resulting better outcomes) is the advent of a virus, HPV16, contributing more to the incidence rate of oral cancers, particularly in the posterior part of the mouth (the oropharynx, the tonsils, the base of tongue areas) which many times does not produce visible lesions or discolorations that have historically been the early warning signs of the disease process.
Oral cancer is so dangerous because in its early stages it usually not noticed by the patient and because it has a high rate of metastasis. This means that patients who survive oral cancer have a much higher risk of developing a second cancer. This increased risk factor can last for five to 10 years after the first occurrence.
The most common oral cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. While there are usually no symptoms in the early stages, a routine screening by a competent dentist can catch it early enough that minor surgery can actually cure the cancer. The dentist will look and feel for white or red lesions that can't be explained by other common reasons such as trauma, cheek biting, canker sores and cold sores. A good rule of thumb is that any lesion that lasts longer than three weeks should be evaluated by a dentist. Almost all benign lesions except for benign cysts will come and go in the three week time period.
If you do not visit a dentist at least once per year, then you should consider doing so immediately if you notice any of the following
- A sore or lesion in the mouth that does not heal within two weeks.
- A lump or thickening in the cheek.
- A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth lasting more than 3 weeks.
- A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat.
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing.
- Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue.
- Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth.
- Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable.
- Chronic hoarseness.
The two most common risk factors for oral cancer are chewing tobacco and heavy alcohol use combined with smoking.
In conclusion, please consider visiting a dentist at least once per year if for no other reason than to have an oral cancer screening.