April is Oral Cancer Awareness month. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 43,000 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer this year, resulting in approximately 8,000 deaths. While oral cancer is not hard to diagnose, it often is not diagnosed until it is in its late stages. The good news is that the cancer can be found early in its development, through a simple, painless and quick screening. And, when found early, oral cancers have an 80 percent or better survival rate.
Like other cancer screenings, such as those for skin, prostate, colon, cervical and breast cancer, oral cancer screenings can be an effective means of finding cancer at its earliest and most easily treatable stage. Of all these screenings, the one for oral cancer is the least invasive and time-consuming, is painless and inexpensive, and it should be done as part of a regular dental hygiene check-up for all patients over the age of 17.
Who is at risk?
While tobacco use by smoking or chewing are still major risk factors, along with alcohol consumption, a surprising segment of oral cancer patients are young, healthy, nonsmoking individuals who have been exposed to the sexually transmitted HPV (human papilloma virus). Exposure to the HPV-16 + 18 virus is the fastest growing risk factor for oral cancer. Other cofactors include periodontal disease, poor oral hygiene and ill-fitting dentures. It is extremely important to note that approximately 25 percent of patients with oral cancer do not fit the traditional profile and have no risk factors.
Signs and Symptoms
Oral cancer frequently has no symptoms; however, when symptoms do occur, the most common include:
• A sore, lump or ulcer on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
• A lump in the neck
• A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth
• Unusual bleeding, pain or numbness in the mouth
• Oral pain that does not go away or a feeling that something is caught in the throat
• Difficulty or pain with chewing or swallowing
• Difficulty with jaw opening
• Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
• Tooth loosening
• Bad breath
• Sensory loss of the face
• Abnormal taste in the mouth
• Swallowing difficulty
• Tongue problems
If you have the above symptoms, it is important for you to see your dentist, even if you are not due for a check-up.
What is involved in a screening?
The cancer screening starts with a visual examination of all the tissues in your mouth; your doctor will feel the floor of your mouth and portions of the back of your throat with his fingers, in the search for abnormalities. A thorough oral screening also includes indirect examination of the nasopharynx and larynx, and involves manually feeling the neck for swollen lymph nodes, and other abnormalities such as hardened masses. Your doctor also will check the mouth for white patches, red patches, ulcerations, lumps, loose teeth, and review your dental x-rays for abnormalities.
Thanks to technology the eye is no longer the sole tool available. To assist dental professionals, there have been many tools created to enhance the performance of the oral exam. These devices are not made to replace the comprehensive exam; they are there to support and supplement the screening. Because the signs and symptoms of oral cancer often cannot be seen by the naked eye, these tools enable us to identify changes in the mouth that may be a sign of something more serious.
While no screening technique for cancer that is 100 percent effective, the oral cancer screening is painless, inexpensive or sometimes free, noninvasive, involves no exposure to radiation, and can be done in just a few minutes. Bottom line: if your dental professional does not do this screening automatically, ask for it. By being proactive, It is your health and your life that is being protected.
Dr. Cyril Mansperger, DDS, is an ecofriendly dentist who provides general dental procedures with a special emphasis on health, functionality and aesthetic design. His office is located at 202 Fishkill Ave., Beacon. For more details, call 831-3435 or visit CyrilMansperger.com.