Oral cancer kills more people nationwide than either cervical or skin (melanoma) cancer. When oral cancer is detected in late stages, as is often the case, the five-year survivability drops to only 50 percent. One American dies every hour from oral cancer. The most common risk factors are tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and exposure to HPV-16 (human papilloma virus). The combination of smoking and drinking is the most dangerous. Some studies indicate heavy drinkers and smokers have as much as a 100-fold increase for developing oral cancers compared with those who don’t drink or smoke. Some other risk factors include prolonged sunlight exposure and a diet low in fruits and vegetables.
Your dentist could very well be your first line of defense in early detection of oral cancer. Statistics show in about 10 percent of patients, dentists notice a problem area even before the patient does. During a comprehensive exam, your dentist will examine your entire mouth and surrounding soft tissues. If you notice any of the following signs, call your dentist.
- A sore that bleeds easily or does not heal.
- A color change of the oral tissues.
- A lump, thickening, rough spot, crust, or small, eroded area.
- Pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips.
Two tests can determine if a trouble spot is cancerous. A brush biopsy is a painless test performed on areas that look harmless or do not have a clear cause. This test can detect potentially dangerous cells in the early stages of the disease. A scalpel biopsy, which requires local anesthesia, is usually performed on suspicious areas.
Remember to schedule regular check ups for everyone in your family. If, between visits, you notice any unusual changes in your mouth, call your dentist immediately. Together you and your dentist can fight the battle against oral cancer.
For more information about oral cancer, support groups, or treatments, visit www.oralcancerfoundation.org.