We love our dentists for all sorts of reasons. Our dentist helps our smile look its best, prevents cavities from going unchecked and contributes to our overall well-being. What few of us realize is how truly important our dentist is to our health. The body and mouth are inseparably linked -- if something is going wrong in our mouth, it can spread. A startling example of this is the prevalence of oral cancer.
In America, 30,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer or pharyngeal cancer this year. This results in 8,000 deaths, roughly breaking down to one death every hour of every day.
What makes this figure so terrifying is that early detection of oral cancer symptoms can result in an 80 to 90 percent recovery rate. Diagnosing symptoms of oral cancer too late is what keeps mortality rates so high.
Get the Facts
About 90 percent of oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This cancer can be located in the oral cavity (tongue, cheeks, soft palate, etc.), the lips, the tonsils and more. When the cancer starts it mutates the genes which control cell behavior. These mutated genes grow and spread and multiply at an uncontrolled rate.
Oral Cancer Treatment
Before we talk about oral cancer treatment, let's start with an oral cancer screening. An oral cancer exam allows your dentist to look for any signs of oral cancer. He or she can perform this check during a regular dental visit. It's a pain-free process that takes about 5-15 minutes. Typically, your dentist will look for symptoms or oral cancer on the roof and floor of your mouth, at the base of your tongue and its underside, along the insides of your lips and cheeks as well as around your jaw and neck. If your dentist sees any potential signs of oral cancer, he or she will take a biopsy.
In the event that you receive a positive diagnosis, your oral cancer treatment will require the help of several doctors from many fields of medicine. Oral cancer treatment generally involves a surgeon, radiation oncologist (doctor trained to give X-ray treatments), oncologist (cancer doctor), and a rehabilitation and restorative specialist.
Am I at Risk?
It may seem obvious, but two things may put you at higher risk for developing oral cancer: tobacco and alcohol.
Cigarette smoking, cigar smoking and chewing tobacco have all been linked to oral cancer. Far rarer are cases of oral cancer among non-smokers. New research suggests that oral cancer can even be transmitted between partners.
What's not widely known is the definitive link between smoking and drinking in oral cancer cases. Smokers who are also heavy alcohol drinkers increase their oral cancer risk significantly. These two substances act together to become even more deadly and more debilitating.
Age also plays a central role in developing oral cancer symptoms. People over 40 are at a much higher risk. When you're a young person, your body can handle pretty much anything you can throw at it. As we age, time and abuse catch up with us. A 20-year-old can smoke and not worry about the consequences. A 50-year-old can do the same, of course, but at that age a smoking habit might be so deeply engrained that quitting is exponentially more difficult.
The earlier oral cancer signs are diagnosed the better. In fact, it can mean the difference between life and death. The scary reality is that the average person has conditions inside the mouth that mimic the appearance of early stage symptoms of oral cancer. Biting the inside of your mouth or a loose fitting dental bridge or dentures can all leave small lesions or agitated spots on the inside of your mouth that might look like oral cancer symptoms to the naked eye.
Here is your clue to see your dentist if you see any of these symptoms of oral cancer in your mouth:
"Any sore, discoloration, induration, prominent tissue, irritation, hoarseness, which does not resolve within a two week period on its own, with or without treatment, should be considered suspect and worthy of further examination or referral."
Oral cancer is a significant byproduct of smoking. It puts your partner at risk, not to mention those who come in close contact with your second-hand smoke. If unable to quit, as so many millions are, it's imperative that you visit your dental professional twice a year for your oral cancer screening.