What You Need to Know about Oral Cancer – & How to Prevent It

oral cancer examIf caught early, oral cancers are some of the most treatable. Yet according to a recent survey by Vigilant Biosciences, only 37% of American adults report having a cancer screening during their regular dental visits.

No wonder so many new patients seem a little baffled when we include an oral cancer screen during their examinations. Many may have never had one before!

Because routine screening is not the norm, many oral cancers are only caught in their later stages. At that point, treatment success is far from a given. Yet most people don’t realize how low the 5 year survival rate is. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation,

Close to 45,750 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. It will cause over 8,650 deaths, killing roughly 1 person per hour, 24 hours per day. Of those 45,750 newly diagnosed individuals, only slightly more than half will be alive in 5 years.

Some folks will be “lucky” and detect the cancer early, but luck shouldn’t have anything to do with it. A simple exam that takes only minutes can make all the difference. It’s routine in our office – as we feel it should be in every office.

In a typical oral cancer exam, the dentist or hygienist checks the mouth, lips, gums, tongue, tonsils and other soft tissues for lesions or abnormalities. The neck and lymph nodes are also checked. In addition to this “inspection and palpation” exam (“palpation” refers to touching or pushing against the tissues), some dentists will use high-tech devices that are claimed to detect problems even earlier, but they aren’t totally necessary. Properly done, a traditional sight and touch exam is sufficient.

At the same time, you should remain alert to any potential signs of oral cancer. These include

  • Persistent mouth sores.
  • Mouth or ear pain.
  • Chronic hoarseness.
  • A non-tender lump on the neck.
  • Abnormal swallowing.
  • A peculiar sore throat.

You can also do self-exams at home. (Here’s how.) If you notice anything out of the ordinary – or are experiencing any symptoms – you should make an appointment with your dentist for a thorough, professional evaluation.

The other thing to do, of course, is minimize risks – something which the Vigilant Biosciences found that 78% want their dentist to teach them how to do.

In the past, dentists and physicians usually just pointed to two high risk activities to avoid: tobacco use and heavy drinking. But in recent years, rising rates of human papilloma virus (HPV) infection have taken over as a major trigger, especially among young adults and women – two populations that once experienced extremely low rates of oral cancer.

Since cancer is largely a disease of lifestyle, it is also largely preventable through lifestyle changes. The big three:

  • If you use tobacco in any form or if you vape, quit. If you don’t, don’t start.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Practice safer sex.

Then there are all the things you should habitually do to maintain optimal health and well-being, and thus keep up your body’s self-defenses. The main ones?

  • Eat a nutritionally rich and varied diet, including lots of fresh produce and a minimum of added sugars and refined carbohydrates. Avoid hyper-processed food.
  • Be physically active. You can find the recommended activity requirements here.
  • Get enough good quality sleep – 7 to 8 hours nightly.
  • Make time for rest, relaxation and recreation – including some time outdoors in nature.

And, of course, get screened regularly for oral cancer. If your dentist doesn’t automatically do it, ask. It could mean the difference between early detection and successful treatment – or being too late.

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