About 54,500 adults in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year. Statistics show that nearly one-third of people with these cancers lose their lives to the disease within five years — but over two-thirds (68.5%) achieve remission and survive.
As dentists who fully understand the invaluable benefit of routine preventive care, our team at Smiles in Springfield knows that early detection and prompt medical intervention of oral cavity or pharynx cancers is what increases your odds of treatment success and long-term survival.
Here, Dr. Quang Tran and Dr. Truc Duong discuss the ins and outs of oral cancer, and offer key reasons — from potential warning signs to significant personal risk factors — that should prompt you to schedule your next oral cancer screening as soon as possible.
A short tutorial on oral cancers
Oral cancer arises from squamous cells, or thin, flat cells that are found in your epidermal (skin) tissues as well as the tissues that line your respiratory and digestive tracts.
Healthy squamous cells turn malignant (cancerous) when abnormal changes (mutations) to their DNA structure cause them to grow rapidly, spread, and invade other tissues.
Oral cancer can affect any of the tissues in your mouth (oral cavity), including:
- Lips (outer and inner portions)
- The inner lining of your cheeks
- Gum tissues (top and bottom)
- The area behind your wisdom teeth
- The front two-thirds of your tongue
- The mouth floor (under your tongue)
- The roof of your mouth (hard palate)
It can also affect the tissues in your upper throat (oropharynx), or the area just beyond your oral cavity. This includes the base of the tongue, the backmost part of the roof of your mouth (soft palate), your tonsils, and the lining of your throat.
Get to know your oral cancer risk factors
Oral cancer can affect anyone, but you’re more likely to develop the disease if you have one or more associated risk factors. Unmodifiable risk factors for oral cancer include:
- Male gender: Men are twice as likely as women to get oral cancer
- Older age: Four in five oral cancers occur in adults age 55 and older; the average age of diagnosis is 64 years old
- Family history: Your oral cancer risk increases if a close family member has had it
Controllable risk factors — those that can be prevented, improved, modified, or eliminated — are arguably the most significant risk factors for oral cancer. In fact, statistics show that 3 in 4 people who get oral cancer (75%) have one or more of the following risk factors:
- Tobacco use (i.e., smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes)
- Smokeless tobacco use (i.e., chewing tobacco, dip, snuff)
- Regular alcohol use, particularly heavy alcohol consumption
- Prolonged sun exposure (without applying sunscreen to the lips)
- A sexually transmitted HPV infection that arises in the upper throat
Simply put, you should have regular oral cancer screenings if you use any kind of tobacco, drink heavily, spend a lot of time in the sun without sunscreen, or if you’ve been diagnosed with high-risk HPV.
Learn to spot oral cancer warning signs
A prompt oral cancer screening becomes even more important if you happen to notice any mouth sores or unusual oral tissue changes that persist. Oral cancer can look like common benign oral health problems, with the main difference being it doesn’t heal and go away.
Warning signs of oral cancer include:
- Persistent lip or mouth sores that bleed easily
- Rough spots or crusty areas on any soft tissues
- A white or reddish patch inside your mouth
- A noticeable growth or lump inside your mouth
- Ongoing oral tenderness for no apparent reason
- Unexplained face, mouth, jaw, ear, or neck pain
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing normally
- Chronic bad breath; unintentional weight loss
If you develop any of these symptoms — especially if you have one or more risk factors for oral cancer — schedule an oral cancer screening with our team as soon as possible.
Should I be concerned about oral cancer?
It’s important to keep in mind that 1 in 4 people (25%) who develop oral cancer don’t have any significant risk factors for the disease. This means that oral cancer should be on everyone’s radar — and it’s why our team performs a basic visual check for signs of the disease at every routine cleaning and exam appointment.
However, if you have at least one risk factor for the disease — with or without noticeable symptoms — having an oral cancer screening should be a priority.
It’s important to note that HPV-linked oral cancer is currently on the rise among men as well as women, and it often appears at younger ages. If you’re sexually active, especially if you’ve ever been diagnosed with high-risk HPV, you should have an oral cancer screening.
To find out more about oral cancer — or to schedule your next screening with Dr. Tran or Dr. Duong at Smiles in Springfield in Springfield, Virginia — give us a call at 703-595-2403 today.