April is used to celebrate a lot of month-long observances, including National Soft Pretzel Month and International Guitar Month. But as wonderful as both soft pretzels and guitars are, their importance pales in comparison to oral cancer awareness, which we try to spread in the month of April.
What is Oral Cancer?
There are many types of oral cancer. The term refers to any cancer located in the oral cavity. Oral cancer is most commonly found on the tongue, but can also occur on the lips, gums, palate, cheeks, or floor of the mouth. Oral cancer can even take hold in the throat or sinus cavity.
But just like cancers elsewhere in the body, oral cancer can be deadly. Nearly 3% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States are oral cancers, and they make up a little over 1.5% of all cancer deaths. That’s nearly 10,000 deaths per year — one per hour, nonstop.
The good news is, if oral cancer is caught in the early stages, there is a very high recovery rate. In order to recognize oral cancer early enough to treat it, it’s important to keep an eye out for symptoms. Here are some red flags that might signify oral cancer:
- Pain, soreness, or numbness in the mouth, tongue, or throat
- Feeling like a lump is stuck in the throat
- Trouble chewing or swallowing
- White or red lesions in the mouth
- Sores, lumps, or swollen areas in the mouth or throat
- Loose teeth
There are also habits and lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of oral cancer. Tobacco use is the habit most directly responsible for high oral cancer risk: The vast majority of people with oral cancer (90%) consume tobacco in some form, be that cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chewing tobacco. Add alcohol into the mix and that risk increases even further.
But while avoiding tobacco and alcohol can seriously decrease your risk, it can’t completely protect you. Age, eating habits, sun exposure, and HPV are also linked to higher likelihood of contracting oral cancer.
How Your Dentist Can Help
Your dentist can reduce your cancer risk in many ways. Oral cancer risk is tied not only to HPV, but also to gum disease. And if you have sleep apnea, it could accelerate the growth of tumors. Your dentist can help you get comfortable, convenient sleep apnea treatment.
You may not know this, but when your dentist performs a standard cleaning or checkup, they’re doing more than clearing plaque off your teeth. Your dentist also performs an oral cancer screening when you come in for an appointment. A dentist is well equipped to check for lesions or sores while you’re in the dentist’s chair.
It’s important to see your dentist for regular checkups and cleanings anyway, to prevent decay and clear that plaque that you can’t manage at home with just your floss and toothbrush. But on top of all that, making sure you don’t skip your regular checkups is important to catching oral cancer early, before it has time to get worse.
Talk to your dentist about your oral cancer risk, and how your lifestyle may or may not be contributing to it. If you’re looking for a San Diego dentist, call (619) 299-5925 or contact us online to make an appointment.