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Cancer can affect any area of the body, including the mouth. Research estimates that around 49,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer every year. Of these, just 57% will survive for at least five years following their diagnosis. These are shocking statistics, but the relatively poor outcome of patients is primarily a result of late diagnosis.
Like all cancers, patients have a much better chance at recovering from oral cancer if it is diagnosed early on. However, in many cases, the signs of the disease are not spotted until they have advanced – often after it has metastasized to other areas of the body, such as the lymph nodes. Once any cancer has spread, it is much harder to treat it successfully.
Since the symptoms of oral cancer can be difficult to spot on yourself, visiting your dentist for regular oral cancer screenings is strongly recommended. In fact, many dentists now incorporate oral cancer screening into every routine check-up appointment.
Just as with other cancers, the underlying cause of oral cancer isn’t known. Nevertheless, there are some factors which are believed to make someone more likely to develop the disease. These include smoking (any tobacco product), drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and being a carrier of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
As we know, detecting oral cancer yourself can be tricky. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no signs or symptoms to be aware of. If you notice any of the following, we strongly recommend that you make an appointment with your dentist as soon as possible:
Sudden changes in your voice such as pitch, lisp or hoarseness
A lump, bump or rough spot in the mouth
Unexplained bleeding from the mouth
Red or white patches in the mouth
A persistent feeling that there is a lump in the back of your throat
A lingering sore throat
Sores in or around the mouth that bleed easily and don’t appear to be healing
Difficulty in swallowing, speaking or chewing
Persistent numbness on the lips or tongue
Limited mobility of the mouth, jaw or tongue
A sudden change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite down
In most instances, oral cancer screening simply involves a comprehensive physical examination of your mouth and the structures within it. This means checking for the presence of rough patches, lumps, bumps or growths. Your dentist may ask you a series of questions that are designed to reveal whether you have any concerning symptoms, such as if you’ve had a persistent sore throat or lingering mouth ulcers.
Some dentists have invested in UV technology which can be used to detect the presence of cancer cells in some cases too.
Once your dentist has performed the oral cancer screening, they will advise you if you would benefit from further assessment, or if you require a referral to an oncologist.
The good news is that if oral cancer is detected early enough, it can be treated fairly successfully. This usually involves surgery to remove the affected area and to check that cancerous cells have not spread throughout the oral cavity. However, if your oral cancer is more advanced, surgery may need to be combined with additional therapies such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Exactly how you will be treated will depend on your stage of cancer, and your treatment plan will be explained to you so that you know what to expect.
If you would like more information about oral cancer screenings, or to schedule an appointment, please contact our friendly and experienced team.