April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, so it’s the perfect time to raise awareness about the cancer that claims the life of a person every hour.
More than 90% of cases of oral cancer are attributed to lifestyle and environmental factors — factors that we can control.
That’s why it’s important to understand what oral cancer is, how it develops, what its symptoms are, how we can treat it and — more importantly — how to prevent oral cancer.
What Is Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer, also referred to as mouth cancer, includes cancer of the lips, tongue, cheeks, mouth floor, hard and soft palate, sinuses and throat. If undiagnosed and untreated, it can develop into a life-threatening condition.
What Are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer often makes its presence known in the form of a sore in the mouth, easy to be confused with a canker or a cold sore. A sore caused by oral cancer does not go away.
There are several other symptoms to look out for, though. Oral cancer symptoms include:
- Swollen, lumpy, sore or irritated lips and mouth
- Persistent red and/or white patches
- Persistent ulcer
- Pain, tenderness or numbness
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving the jaw and tongue
- Wiggly teeth or a change in the way the teeth fit together when your mouth is closed
- Bleeding of the mouth or nose
How Is Oral Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?
Oral cancer is diagnosed first with a physical exam administered by a dentist or doctor who will examine the mouth and throat for physical indications of oral cancer and review your medical history.
If the exam reveals any cause for concern, there are a number of other diagnostic measures:
- Biopsy (incisional biopsy, exfoliative cytology, fine needle aspiration biopsy)
- Imaging tests (CT or CAT scan, MRI, PET scan, X-rays, etc.)
- Endoscopy (using a small camera to inspect the area)
- Direct and indirect pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy (examinations of the tongue, larynx, throat and nose)
What Causes Oral Cancer?
As noted before, oral cancer can be attributed to lifestyle and environmental factors more than 90% of the time.
Some of the most common oral cancer causes include:
- Tobacco: All forms of tobacco are harmful to the mouth, and they may cause cancers of the cheek, gums and inner surface of the lips. Smokeless tobacco increases the risk by around 50 times, and secondhand smoke can even put nonsmokers at risk.
- Alcohol: Alcohol is even more harmful when paired with tobacco use.
Human papilloma virus (HPV): 90% of HPV cases go away over time, but those that persist can lead to cell changes and abnormal tissue growth — both of which contribute to oral cancer.
- Diet: Those who don’t have a healthy fruit and vegetable intake are more susceptible to developing oral cancer. Fruits and vegetables contain high amounts of beta-carotene, and when beta-carotene levels are low, risk for oral and other cancers increases.
- Ultraviolet rays: Prolonged exposure to sunlight can lead to oral cancer and skin cancer on the lips.
How to Prevent Oral Cancer
Men over the age of 40 are the most likely to develop oral cancer, but men and women of all ages should practice oral cancer prevention.
Possibly the most obvious preventative measure you can take is to eliminate all oral cancer-causing habits: tobacco use, high alcohol intake and poor nutrition.
Avoid overexposure to sunlight, wear a hat when outdoors and apply — and reapply — sun protection on your lips and face.
See your dentist regularly for checkups and cleanings, and conduct self-examinations monthly. Use the six-step screening self exam to inspect the floor of the mouth, roof of the mouth, cheeks, lips, tongue and back of the throat.