Everyone knows that regular dental appointments can keep a smile happy and healthy, but did you know that these preventive exams could also save your life? According to the American Cancer Society, over 50,000 people will get oral or oropharyngeal cancer in 2022. More frequent oral cancer screenings are the best way to reduce the annual number of deaths associated with this disease, since early detection and subsequent treatment are the most effective. The Northeast Arkansas Center for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery team lives and works in this area, and we’re committed to improving oral health for our neighbors! To learn more about the signs and symptoms of oral cancer and how it can be treated, keep reading below.
What is oral cancer?
Oral cancer can affect the inside and the outside of the mouth and is divided into two categories. Cancer of the oral cavity can include the lips, gums, inside of the cheeks, front two-thirds of the tongue, the floor of the mouth, and the hard palate. Cancer of the oropharynx, also known as oropharyngeal cancer, can affect the soft palate, the back and base of the tongue, the tonsils, and the back of the throat.
What are the signs and symptoms of oral cancer?
Oral cancer is a particularly dangerous disease because it often goes unnoticed or undiagnosed until it has progressed into the later stages. It’s also tricky because early warning signs can easily be chalked up to other issues. These include:
persistent lip sores or mouth ulcers
pain or numbness in the lips, mouth, throat, or ears
red or white patches inside the mouth
a noticeable growth, lump, rough spot, or eroded area inside the mouth
difficulty chewing or swallowing
problems speaking or moving the tongue or jaw
a change in the way your bite fits together
None of these are definitive signs of oral cancer, as many of them can be attributed to a variety of mouth infections or sores. In fact, the Oral Cancer Foundation reports that the average dentist will see 3-5 patients a day with abnormalities in their mouths, most of which are no cause for concern. Simple things like cold and canker sores share some similarities with the signs of oral cancer, so it’s important to keep an eye on things like this if you notice them. If they don’t improve or heal within two weeks or so, schedule an exam with your dentist so they can check it out and make sure there’s nothing more serious going on.
What are the risk factors for oral cancer?
Most cases of oral cancer have their root in lifestyle choices, like long-term tobacco use or high alcohol consumption. People who drink and use tobacco are 15x more likely to develop cancer than those who do not. There are other risk factors, however. These include a weakened immune system and genetic disorders like Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita. Excessive sun exposure can also lead to cancer of the lips.
In recent years, there have been growing cases of oropharyngeal cancer in younger people who do not use tobacco due to the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many strains of HPV and most thought to be harmless, but a sexually transmitted strain known as HPV16 has been linked to multiple cancers, including those found in the throat and the back of the mouth. The CDC believes HPV causes about 70% of current oropharyngeal cancer cases in the U.S. but having HPV16 doesn’t guarantee you’ll develop oral cancer. Most immune systems are able to fight off the infection within one to two years, but it’s important to work with a dentist to assess any potential symptoms.
What treatments are available for oral cancer?
Early detection of oral cancer has been shown to increase the survival rate to 80% or better. Our oral cancer screenings are quick and painless. Dr. McDonough will be looking for any small changes in the lining tissues of the mouth, lips, and tongue that may signify the early stages of cancer. This is primarily a visual and tactile (touch) examination. If we come across any abnormalities, a small tissue sample can be retrieved for further testing in a laboratory.
If you’re diagnosed with oral cancer, additional tests will be necessary to determine what stage it is and whether or not it has spread beyond your mouth. These often include endoscopy and imaging tests like CTs, MRIs, or PET scans.
Your treatment will be determined by the stage of cancer and where it is located. The most common treatment methods include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. You may need one or a combination of treatments.
In some cases, surgery will be recommended to remove the cancerous tumor. This procedure could be relatively minor or may involve removing portions of the tongue, jaw, or lymph nodes in more severe cases. Depending on the extent of the initial surgery, additional work might be needed to reconstruct affected areas. This could include dental implants to replace any natural teeth that were lost or had to be removed or transplants of skin, bone, or muscle from other parts of your body.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells. While it can be used on its own to treat early-stage oral cancer, it will more often follow surgery and will sometimes be administered in conjunction with chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is treatment with anti-cancer drugs that are injected into a vein or taken by mouth. This allows them to enter the blood and reach most parts of the body. Chemotherapy may be used at different times when treating oral or oropharyngeal cancers.
Neoadjuvant or induction chemotherapy is given before surgery. It may be given before or at the same time as radiation therapy. This type of chemotherapy can treat larger cancers to make the initial surgery easier with less tissue removal, resulting in fewer side effects.
Adjuvant chemotherapy is given after surgery and will sometimes be combined with radiation therapy. The goal of adjuvant chemotherapy is to kill cancer cells that may have been left behind during surgery because they were too small to see. This can help lower the chances of the cancer coming back.
In some advanced cases, chemotherapy can be used with or without radiation therapy to treat cancers that are too large or have spread too far for surgical removal. This can slow the growth of the cancer for as long as possible and also helps relieve any associated symptoms.
Minimizing your risk of oral cancer with help from Northeast Arkansas Center for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
Oral cancer is a serious disease and discussing it can feel a little scary! Fortunately, there are many ways to help minimize your risk of developing it. These include:
- never starting or completely stopping the use of any kind of tobacco
- keeping your alcohol intake to a moderate level (up to two drinks per day for men 65 and younger, up to one drink per day for women of all ages and men over 65)
- avoiding excessive sun exposure
- getting the HPV vaccine
If you have any of the risk factors for oral cancer, being proactive about new or changing issues with your mouth is the first line of defense! You can conduct self-exams of your own mouth at home by following the steps found here, and of course annual oral cancer screenings are an essential tool for early detection. Get in touch with us today to learn more about our services or to schedule your own oral cancer screening!