Regular Oral Cancer Screenings Could Save Your Life

by | Feb 27, 2019 | Oral Health

Last week, the world lost another soul to an oral cancer: Peter Tork of Monkees fame. As his family wrote on Facebook,

Peter succumbed to a 10 year bout with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the salivary glands. Peter’s energy, intelligence, silliness, and curiosity were traits that for decades brought laughter and enjoyment to millions, including those of us closest to him. Those traits also equipped him well to take on cancer, a condition he met with unwavering humor and courage.

Meanwhile, recent news also shared the story of another oral cancer victim, a 58-year old Englishwoman who lost most of her tongue, and glands in her neck, and multiple teeth to a different type of oral cancer. Her story had a happier ending, though: Surgeons were able to reconstruct a tongue for her using tissues from her arm.

She also reports now being cancer-free.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, nearly 53,000 Americans are diagnosed with an oral cancer every year. A little more than half of those individuals will still be alive after five years.

That’s a higher death rate than for many cancers you often hear much more about.

Part of the reason for this is that many oral cancers don’t get noticed until they’ve progressed quite a bit. There may be no obvious symptoms. The development of additional tumors is common.

This is why oral cancer screening is a part of every oral exam we do, for new and current patients alike. The earlier oral cancers are detected and addressed, the better the chances of survival.

A typical exam starts with inspecting the soft tissues of the mouth – lips, gums, tongue, and so on. Are there any lesions? The neck and lymph nodes are palpated – touched gently – to see if there are any abnormalities.

Common signs of oral cancer include

  • Persistent mouth sores.
  • Mouth or ear pain.
  • A non-tender lump on the neck or under the jaw.
  • Chronic hoarseness.
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing.

You can also learn how to do a self-exam at home. If you notice anything not quite right, consult a dentist to have it checked out further.

The other thing that’s in your power is to practice prevention, addressing any factors that may be raising your risk of oral cancer.

Smoking – and, as we saw last week, vaping – are major contributors to oral cancers; likewise, heavy drinking. Curbing these behaviors can significantly lower your risk.

Another increasingly common trigger, particularly among younger adults and women, is human papillomavirus (HPV). This is the same sexually-transmitted virus that’s involved with to cervical cancer. HPV-related oral cancers tend to be found deep in the back of the mouth and throat. Because of this, they can be more difficult to detect than others.

Practicing safer sex can help lower risk of transmission of the virus to the mouth.

And, of course, practicing those habits that help keep up your body’s own defenses is just as important, starting with a nutritionally rich and varied diet with a minimum of refined sugars and other carbs; regular physical activity or exercise; getting enough rest and good quality sleep.

But above all, make sure you get screened regularly. It just might save your life.

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