Oral Cancer Awareness

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month.   Oral cancer is defined as any cancer that forms in tissues of the oral cavity (the mouth) or the oropharynx (the part of the throat at the back of the mouth).  According to the National Cancer Institute, over 40,000 cases are estimated to be diagnosed in 2014, with over 8,000 deaths estimated.  Oral cancer is more common than Leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease and other cancers of the brain, liver, bone and stomach. 

Cancer begins in the cells.  Normally these cells grow, divide, and/or die as the body requires.  Cancer cells don’t behave as normal cells; the old cells don’t die, and new cells are formed even when they’re not needed.  The excess cells collect in a mass of tissue- a tumor.  These tumors can be benign or malignant. One of the characteristics of a malignant tumor is that it can spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs.  The cells will retain the characteristics of the original tumor site.  So even though there may be new tumors in the lungs, it would be metastatic oral cancer, not lung cancer.    

Dr. Kifer performs an oral cancer screening at each routine exam and/or cleaning.  He looks carefully at the roof of your mouth, back of your throat, the insides of your cheeks and lips, and will have you stick out your tongue to check the sides and underneath of your tongue as well as the floor of your mouth for any signs of oral cancer.   We recommend having an oral cancer screening at least once per year.  Patients who wear dentures should still see the dentist yearly for an oral cancer screening, even if they are not having any problems.  Often oral cancer is pain and symptom free in the beginning stages, but might have been detected by an oral cancer screening. 

You know by now how we like to talk about risk factors… what makes one person more at risk for certain problems than another.  While anyone can get oral cancer, there are some things that can make one person more at risk than someone else.  Per the American Cancer Society, risk factors for oral cancer include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Tobacco (any form) - about 80% of people with oral cancer use tobacco in one form or another.  The dentist is a good resource for smoking cessation tips and options.
  • Heavy alcohol use- this risk increases the more alcohol a person drinks, and includes beer, wine and heavy liquor.  The risk is even greater in people who drink and use tobacco; they are 100 times more likely to get oral cancer.
  •  Diet- lack of fruits and veggies in the diet has been linked with a higher risk of oral cancer.
  • HPV- Infections with certain types of the Human Papilloma Virus can cause oral cancer.  People with oral and oropharyngeal cancer linked with HPV infection tend to be younger and are less likely to be smokers and drinkers.  There are many types of HPV infections, which are labeled by number.  The number linked to throat cancer is HPV 16
  • Gender- men are twice as common in men as in women.  This is likely due to the higher prevalence of other risk factors in men, such as drinking, smoking, and HPV. 
  • Age- Cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx usually take many years to develop, so they are not common in young people. Most patients with these cancers are older than 55 when the cancers are first found, however this may be changing as HPV-linked cancers become more common. People with cancers linked to HPV infection tend to be younger.
  • UV light- Cancers of the lip can be caused by prolonged sun exposure. 
  • Genetics- certain genetic syndromes, including Fanconi anemia and Dyskeratosis Congenita can carry a high risk for oral cancer. 
  • Weakened immune system- whether from certain diseases present from birth, AIDS, or immune suppression medications taken to prevent transplant rejection.
  • Personal history of oral cancer- People who have had oral cancer are at increased risk of developing another oral cancer. Smoking increases this risk.

Oral cancer is particularly dangerous due to the fact that it can go undetected in the early stages because it does not cause pain or other symptoms that the patient might easily recognize, and also because of the high rate of reoccurrence.  Routine dental exams are an excellent first line of defense, especially as the oral cancer screening is unobtrusive and simple, and it is included as part of the routine exam.   Call us today to get on a routine preventative program.  479-521-2002.