Oral exam

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month

Oral cancer can be a tough diagnosis to swallow. Most people don’t talk about it because they simply don’t know about it. However, even though oral cancer isn’t on everyone’s lips, it could still be detected on yours or someone’s you love. Oral cancer is part of a group of head and neck cancers that develop in the mouth and throat. To stop the spread of the disease, it’s time to spread the word. April is recognized as Oral Cancer Awareness Month. During April and beyond, everyone is encouraged to speak out about oral cancer and the need for oral cancer screenings because early detection can save your life. Start the conversation by taking a closer look at the rates and ranges of oral cancer, along with oral cancer symptoms, the stages, effective oral cancer treatment options, and tips for prevention. After all, the words of warning that come out of your mouth can save someone else’s.

The spread of oral cancer

Dentists do more than save your smile—they can also save your life. Those routine dental appointments include more than cleanings and check-ups. Your dentist can also performs oral cancer screenings during your exams to spot potential oral cancer symptoms. This year alone, more than 54,000 Americans will be diagnosed with cancers of the mouth or throat.

A wide range of oral cancers

Oral cancer can develop on the tongue, throat, tonsils, gums, floor of your mouth, lips, cheeks, and the roof of your mouth. Just as it appears in many places, it also takes on many forms, including:

  • Squamous cell carcinomas – Making up more than 90% of cases, your mouth and throat are lined with squamous cells that can mutate and become abnormal.
  • Verrucous carcinomas – At only around 5% of all cases, these slow-growing cancer cells very rarely spread to other parts of your body, yet they may affect nearby tissue.
  • Minor salivary carcinomas – These cancers develop in the lining of the mouth and throat.
  • Lymphoma – Cancers that start at the base of the tongue and tonsils, which contain immune system tissue, are called lymphomas.

Straight talk on oral cancer symptoms

Since oral cancer can develop long before or after your dental check-up, the first line of defense is you. If you have any of the following oral cancer symptoms for more than two weeks, schedule a visit to your dentist for an oral cancer screening or see your SignatureMD-affiliated doctor:

  • Any sore, irritation, or lump on your mouth, lips, and throat that doesn’t heal in 14 days
  • White or red discolorations in your mouth
  • A sore throat or a feeling like something is caught in your throat
  • Difficulty swallowing, chewing, or speaking
  • Problems moving your jaw or tongue
  • Swelling or pain in your jaw
  • Numbness in your tongue, lips, or any place else in your mouth
  • An earache

Explaining the four oral cancer stages

If signs of oral cancer are detected during your oral cancer screening, you will be referred to a specialist for a complete head and neck examination, along with other tests like a biopsy, where abnormal cells are removed and tested. If cancer is detected, your doctor will figure out how far it’s progressed, which is a process known as staging. The different oral cancer stages include:

  • Stage 0 – The cancer is still within the top layer of cells and hasn’t spread.
  • Stage I – The cancer is less than one inch and hasn’t spread into the lymph nodes.
  • Stage II – The cancer has grown to between one and two inches but hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage III – The cancer is either more than two inches or it has spread into the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV – The cancer is any size and is spreading to nearby tissues or into the lymph nodes.
  • Recurrent – When cancer has come back after being treated.

The last word on oral cancer treatment

Oral cancer is treatable and beatable, but primarily only with early detection. All it takes is a quick and painless oral cancer screening by your dentist. If detected early, surgery or radiation are the most common oral cancer treatment options. For advanced cases, oral cancer treatment includes a combination of treatments or targeted therapies.

More than a mouthful of ways to reduce your risk

Certain factors like your health, your habits, and your history can raise your risk of oral cancer, including being a man and over age 50, along with smoking, drinking too much alcohol, a poor diet, lack of exercise, the HPV infection, sun exposure, and a family history. While some factors are beyond your control, the ones based on your behaviors can be changed to reduce your risk, such as:

  1. Quit tobacco – Using tobacco in any way is one of the strongest risk factors for oral cancer.
  2. Avoid alcohol – Heavy drinkers are more likely to develop the disease. If you choose to drink alcohol, drink in moderation.
  3. Eat a healthy diet – Eating more fruits, veggies, and whole grains while limiting your intake of red meats, processed foods, and sugary drinks can help lower your risk.
  4. Consider the HPV vaccine – The HPV virus is linked to cancers of the mouth and throat, but the HPV vaccine can help with prevention.
  5. Get regular dental check-ups – Visit your dentist for oral cancer screenings every six months.
  6. Protect your lips from the sun – Limit your sun exposure when the sun is strongest during the day. When you’re outdoors, wear a broad-brimmed hat and apply sunscreen or lip balm with a minimum SPF 30.

Since oral cancer affects your mouth, use yours to fight it. During Oral Cancer Awareness Month, start talking about the importance of oral cancer screenings because early detection is the best protection.