Know the Risks and Early Warning Signs of Oral Cancer

One type of cancer receives minimal attention despite this sad fact: Every hour, one person dies from oral cancer. Oral cancer typically strikes those over age 40, with men more than twice as likely to get the diagnosis. Risks include tobacco use, excess drinking, facial sun exposure, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. White or red patches in our mouths, problems chewing or swallowing, and lip or mouth pain might be signs of oral cancer. Treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and medication. Let's look more closely at how to prevent it, warning signs, and treatment.

Understanding Oral Cancer

Cancer occurs when cells grow abnormally, invading and damaging different parts of the body and then potentially spreading to other areas. Oral cancers include cancer of the throat, cheeks, tongue, lips, sinuses, and mouth. 

Oral cancer usually begins in the mouth or throat tissues, but sometimes may only be discovered only after expanding to the necks’ lymph nodes. Tonsil cancer, throat cancer, tongue cancer, and mouth cancer are all considered types of oral cancer. 

Knowing the Risk Factors

It’s important to be aware of what can put us at a higher risk of oral cancer. Risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use, from cigarettes to chewing tobacco
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Sun exposure on the face
  • Family cancer history
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Excessive alcohol use, with 7 in 10 oral cancer patients categorized as heavy drinkers
  • Gender: Men are more than twice as apt to be diagnosed with oral cancer
  • Age: Most cases of cancer occur after 40

Recognizing the Early Warning Signs of Oral Cancer

By learning the early warning signs and symptoms of oral cancer, we may avoid having it spread to other areas. As with other types of cancer, early detection is key. Oral cancer may be deadly if not diagnosed and treated at an early stage.If you experience any of the signs below for over two weeks, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider: 

  • Problems swallowing or chewing.
  • Sore areas or lumps on the lips or in the throat or mouth.
  • Red or white patches in the mouth.
  • Challenges with jaw and tongue movement.
  • Ulcers or sores that bleed or do not heal.

But don't panic. None of these are definitive signs of oral cancer. These symptoms only indicate it’s time to seek a doctor’s expertise and to get screened.

Diagnosing and Treating Oral Cancer

Both dentists and doctors may play roles in the initial diagnosis of oral cancer. What's an oral cancer screening like? They screen the mouth and lips to check for white patches, sores, and other symptoms. 

After the physical exam, the dentist or doctor may perform a biopsy on any suspicious areas. This procedure involves using a needle or other device to get cell samples and may often be performed right then and there in the office. The biopsied cells will undergo laboratory analysis to look for precancerous or cancerous changes. 

If it's determined that the cells are abnormal, you will need to confer with an oncologist to determine the type of cancer and to make a plan for treatment that's specifically targeted at your type. The oncologist may use additional tests such as an endoscopy, which involves sending a tiny camera down the throat, and imaging tests such as X-rays and MRIs. They will also likely screen you further to help determine if the cancer has spread.

What Happens in Oral Cancer Treatment?

Oral cancer treatment options may include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor, potentially followed by reconstructive surgery.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • Drug therapy.
  • Immunotherapy.

Talking with a healthcare provider about treatment options may empower us through the journey to good health. Treatment combinations, like chemotherapy plus radiation therapy, may be required to combat oral cancer in some cases and of course, everything is dependent on whether or not the cancer has spread or if it's localized and at what stage the cancer is caught.

How Can We Prevent Oral Cancer?

In 2020, an estimated 53,500 people in the United States will receive oral cancer diagnoses but this number could be greatly reduced if we knew how to prevent it in the first place. Reduce the risk for oral cancer by making healthy lifestyle changes. These include:

  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid direct sunlight on the face and use lip balm with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
  • Reduce alcohol to one daily drink for women, two drinks for men.
  • Visit the dentist at least once annually and ask for a screening if one is not already included in your exam.
  • Avoid all forms of tobacco, including second-hand smoke.

Oral cancers are devastating and oo often overlooked. Armed with information about symptoms and risk factors, we have the best probability of early detection leading to early treatment. Oral cancers are frequently survivable, especially when caught early so screenings should happen regularly no matter what but our best bet at keeping these cancers at bay is through risk reduction.

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11/7/2021 8:00:00 AM
Wellness Editor
Written by Wellness Editor
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