April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and we want to take a moment to do our part in raising awareness and increasing public understanding of this serious disease.
Oral cancer can be lethal. This year alone an estimated 54,000 people in the United States alone will be diagnosed with some form of oral cancer. Of those, over 40% will not survive longer than five years. Many of those who do survive will face long-term problems including disfigurement, loss of taste and smell, or difficulty eating and speaking.
While oral cancer is serious, it is most often treatable if caught in time. Early detection is key in preventing the worst of oral cancer. Let’s take a deeper look into what causes oral cancer and the role that oral cancer screenings play in early detection.
Causes of Oral Cancer
As with all cancers, oral cancer is not yet fully understood. However, there are a number of potential causes which have been strongly linked with oral cancer. These include:
- Tobacco and alcohol use: Tobacco in any form, either smoking or chewing tobacco, drastically increases your risk for oral cancers. Excess alcohol consumption does the same thing. Partaking of both has a compounding effect, which further increases the odds of contracting oral cancers.
- HPV. The sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (specifically the HPV 16 type) has been linked to oral cancers.
- Age. As with most cancers, the risk of oral cancer increases with age. People over 40 are the most likely to develop oral cancers.
- Sun Exposure. Cancer of the lip can be caused by sun exposure.
Changing any of these habits or behaviors can reduce the odds of getting oral cancer. Giving up tobacco, minimizing the use of alcohol, and protecting yourself from the sun are all simple steps in helping prevent oral cancer.
Symptoms of Oral Cancer
There are a number of signs and symptoms which indicate that oral cancer may be present. If you notice any of the following persistently, please seek medical care:
- A sore, irritation, lump, or thick patch in your mouth, lip, or throat
- A white or red patch in your mouth
- A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in your throat
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking
- Difficulty moving your jaw or tongue
- Swelling of your jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
- Numbness in your tongue or other areas of your mouth
- Ear pain
Please note that these symptoms are not necessarily proof of oral cancer–they can be caused by several things. However, they are a sign that you should be screened for oral cancer as soon as possible.
Oral Cancer Screenings
So what happens during an oral cancer screening? Both medical doctors and dentists may perform oral cancer screenings, and the process has some steps. They’ll likely begin by asking you a few questions about your lifestyle, habits, and background. From there they’ll move to a physical exam. This will likely involve a close inspection of your mouth, gums, lips, and cheeks, along with the rest of your head and neck. Expect some poking and prodding–they’ll need a tactile exam in order to assess everything that’s going on. If necessary, they may order some x-rays or other images to be taken. After all that is done, they’ll offer a diagnosis and suggest what further actions may be necessary.
You should never be afraid to ask for a screening. It’s an important step in early detection and thus prevention and treatment. Oral cancer isn’t something to be afraid of, but rather something we should all be aware of. Now that you know the signs and symptoms and how to get screened for oral cancer, you’re in a better place to take action should the need arise.