Your dentist isn't just looking for cavities when he or she examines your mouth during your checkup. Every exam also includes a check for changes that might indicate that you have mouth cancer. Although mouth cancer is more common as you grow older, it can occur at any time during your life.
What is Mouth Cancer?
Mouth cancer, also called oral cavity cancer, affects the roof or floor of the mouth, lips, lining of the cheeks, gums and tongue, while oropharyngeal cancer develops in the tonsils, root of the tongue and the tissues of the throat. More than 50,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
What are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?
Common symptoms of mouth or oropharyngeal cancer include:
- Lumps or bumps in your mouth, cheeks, tongue or neck
- Pain in the mouth, tongue or jaw
- Jaw stiffness
- Sores that bleed or never seem to heal
- White, red or crusty patches anywhere in the mouth
- Loose teeth or dentures that don't fit well
- Bad breath no matter how often you brush and floss
- Numbness in the lips, mouth or tongue
- Difficulty swallowing, chewing or moving your tongue
- Change in your voice
- Constant sore throat
- Lump-in-the-throat feeling
Who Gets Oral Cancer?
Although anyone can develop mouth or oropharyngeal cancer, people who use tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco, are at higher risk, reports the American Dental Association. Electronic cigarettes may be just as bad for your health. E-cigarettes are tobacco-free, but still contain nicotine. Smoking them can cause cell death and changes in the shape of the cells in your mouth, according to a study published in the November 2016 issue of the Journal of Cellular Physiology. Those changes might increase your oral cancer risk, although more research is needed to determine the effects of the cigarettes on your health.
Other mouth cancer risk factors include:
- Excessive Use of Alcohol. Alcohol abuse is the second leading cause of oral cancer, notes the Oral Cancer Foundation. (Abuse is defined as drinking more than 21 drinks per week.)
- Failure to Use Sunscreen. Many people forget about their lips when applying sunscreen, but cancer can appear in this area too.
- Poor Diet: Fruits and vegetables contain anti-oxidants, substances that prevent damage to the cells from unstable atoms called free radicals. If you don't eat a varied diet, you may raise your risk of mouth cancer.
- Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Infection: The sexually transmitted virus can cause cancer in the throat, tonsils or base of the tongue.
How Can I Reduce My Cancer Risk?
Avoiding mouth cancer starts with making a few important changes to your usual routine. Quitting smoking and giving up drinking or reducing the amount of alcohol you drink can have a very beneficial effect on your oral and general health.
The next time you purchase sunscreen, buy a few tubes of lip balm too. Look for brands that offer a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Using the product every day, winter and summer, will help you avoid mouth cancer.
Consider adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet to lower your oral cancer risk. Health.gov's food pyramid notes that adults should receive four servings of vegetables and three servings of fruit daily.
HPV vaccinations, available for males between the ages of 11 and 21 and females from 11 through 26, can reduce your risk of both the virus and oral cancer. If you're 26 or younger and haven't had the vaccinations, call your doctor as soon as possible to schedule your shots.
In addition to lowering your risk factors, it's also important to visit your dentist every six months for checkups. Cancer, like so many diseases and conditions, is often easier to treat when it's diagnosed in its earliest stages. Regular visits to the dentist will not only protect your smile but also ensure that you'll receive prompt treatment should you ever develop oral cancer.
Is it time for your next dental exam? Call us today to schedule a convenient appointment.
Journal of Cellular Physiology: E-Cigarette Vapor Induces an Apoptotic Response in Human Gingival Epithelial Cells Through the Caspase-3 Pathway, 11/3/16
The Oral Cancer Foundation: The Alcohol Connection
Health.gov: Let the Pyramid Guide Your Food Choices
Mayo Clinic: Mouth Cancer
Mouth Healthy: Oral Cancer
American Cancer Society: Key Statistics for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers, 3/9/18