Every year, thousands of Canadians are diagnosed with oral cancer. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, an estimated 4700 Canadians will be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2017, and an estimated 1250 will die from it. While oral cancer has a good survival rate when detected early, it is often not diagnosed until the later stages.
Oral cancer can be found on the lips, the roof of the mouth, gums, inside of the cheeks, on or under the tongue, back of the throat or tonsils. It usually begins on the surface areas and if left undetected, can spread to deeper tissues and possibly to other areas of the body. Early detection is key to having the best possible outcome.
Risk factors for oral cancer:
- Smoking and other tobacco use (chewing tobacco).
- Heavy alcohol consumption.
- HPV infection/oral sex.
- Repeated sun exposure to lips. Daily use of an SPF lip balm helps reduce the risk.
- Gender; men are more likely to develop oral cancer than women.
- Poor diet. A diet high in fruits and vegetables lowers your risk.
Signs of oral cancer:
- White or red patches that do not heal. Bleeding or tenderness may be present.
- Difficulty speaking, chewing or swallowing.
- Changes in color or texture of the lips or any tissues inside of the mouth.
- Lumps or swelling anywhere in the mouth.
- Changes in sensation; numbness or tingling in the lips or mouth.
- A long-lasting sore throat, hoarse voice or coughing.
Importance of regular dental exams:
Other than helping you maintain optimal oral health, dental professionals are trained to spot any abnormalities of the head, neck, and inside of the mouth. Often, dental professionals are the only ones looking thoroughly at the tissues inside of the mouth and may be the first to detect anything out of the ordinary. That is why regular dental exams can make sure any abnormal changes are detected early.
Importance of self-examination:
Since early detection is important, monitoring things at home is a good way to take control of your health. A good rule of thumb is that any sore or lesion in your mouth should heal within two weeks. However, if you notice any sores or painful areas that last longer than two weeks, visit your dental office or medical doctor.
Some tips for self-examination:
- Learn what normal, healthy tissues look like and monitor for any changes.
- Look at yourself in the mirror, check for asymmetries of the head and neck, look for any swelling or lumps.
- Use a flashlight when looking inside of your mouth to improve visibility.
- Using gauze or a washcloth, hold the tip of your tongue and pull out gently to check the sides, underside and back of the tongue.
- Look under your tongue at the floor of the mouth, check for any swelling or lesions.
- Check the roof of the mouth and back of the throat. Say “ah” to get a better view of the throat. Tonsils should look symmetrical.
- Lift your upper and lower lips to have a look at them. Feel for any bumps.
- Check the insides of your cheeks. While cheek bites are common, monitor any lesions and make sure they heal within two weeks.
Oral cancer is deadly if not detected early. However, limiting your risk factors is vital. Similarly, regular dental exams will help detect warning signs early. If in doubt, have it checked out!