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Protecting Yourself Against Oral Cancer

If there were a quick and painless way to identify pre-cancerous cells in the mouth of someone you love, would you want them to try it?  What if that person were you?

No one wants to think of the word “cancer.”  Yet, think about it we must, because detecting oral cancer at the earliest possible stage is key to a good outcome.   The good news is that if you come in for regular dental cleanings and exams, you will be screened for oral cancer - making early detection much more likely. 

Are You At Risk for Oral Cancer?

Lets take a quick look at a few of the risk factors: 

  • Age:  Patients age 40 and older make up 95% of all oral cancer cases
  • Lifestyle: Patients who use tobacco (smoking or spit tobacco), or are heavy drinkers face an increased risk
  • HPV Diagnosis:  Patients Previously diagnosed oral HPV (human papilloma virus) infection are at greater risk for oral cancer

Oral Cancer and Millenials

The fastest growing segment of oral cancer patients are non-smoking Millennials.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the same HPV virus that is sexually transmitted can infect the mouth and throat. It is then called oral HPV. Much of the increased transmission of this virus is due to changing sexual activities among young people. There are 9,000 new cases of throat cancer diagnosed annually that are potentially related to HPV.  Some strains of the virus are considered "high risk" because they can cause normal cells in the body to mutate and become abnormal and malignant.  Approximately 7 percent of adults have oral HPV, but only about 1 percent have the particular type associated with throat cancer: HPV 16.

Warning Signs of Oral Cancer

Here are some of the symptoms of oral cancer.  If you experience any of the following symptoms lasting more than 7-10 days, please seek the advice of your doctor. Look out for changes that can be detected on the lips, inside the cheeks, palate, gum tissue surrounding your teeth, and tongue.

  • Reddish or whitish patches in the mouth
  • A mouth sore that fails to heal and bleeds easily
  • Any lumps, rough spots, thickened tissues or crusty/eroded areas in your mouth.   Or, areas of tenderness or numbness in the mouth, even if you do not notice changes in the tissue
  • Chronic sore throat or hoarseness
  • Difficulty speaking, moving your jaw or tongue or problems chewing or swallowing.
  • A sore or irritation in the mouth that never goes away
  • Any change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth.

Each year at Jeff M. Morrison & Associates DDS we identify 4-5 potential cases of oral cancer during our dental exams, and are able to help patients receive an early diagnosis and treatment.  If you do not visit the dentist regularly, you could be missing out on the benefits of early cancer detection and treatment.

Reducing Your Risk of Oral Cancer  

Below is a short list of healthy habits you can start doing now, which may reduce your risk.

  • Avoid all tobacco products
  • Avoid or reduce your consumption of alcohol
  • Consume more fruits and vegetables (good for everything, of course)
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure that can result in cancer of the lip
  • Avoid exposure to environmental hazards (wood dust, formaldehyde, printing chemicals)
  • Conduct a self-exam monthly so you can catch any of the symptoms listed above. Use a small hand-held mirror so you can see the back of your mouth and tongue.  Your Dental Hygienist can we’ll show you how to perform this exam in between visits.
  • Consider coffee. While the jury is still out, some research suggests coffee may help protect the mouth from oral cancer.

Oral and upper throat cancers are considered silent killers because they are typically discovered when it is too late. Government officials say these cancers collectively kill nearly one person every hour of every day of every year.  Typically 43 percent of patients with oral cancer will not live any longer than five years after diagnosis - a statistic driven by late diagnosis.  Patients who do survive a first bout of oral cancer have a 20 times greater risk of developing a second cancer and are often disfigured and face a lifetime of problems eating and speaking.   

Annual Dental Exam - Your First and Best Defense

If you are considered “high risk,” you should be receiving an oral exam every six months, if not more frequently. If you haven’t been in to see us in a while, give us a ring at (919) 755-3450 or schedule online.