Oral Cancer is Easy to Miss:
Must-Know Facts That Could Save Your Life
© 2015 Health Realizations, Inc. Update
Oral cancers can be easy to miss, as they usually begin as very small white or red spots or sores inside your mouth. It can affect your lips, tongue or the floor of your mouth, although the tongue is most common. Statistics show that around 25 to 30 percent of oral cancers are found in the tongue, 15 to 20 percent in the tonsils and 10 to 20 percent in minor salivary glands.
In some instances, however, oral cancer can even occur inside your cheeks, on your gums or in your palate. If left alone without treatment, oral cancer can cause severe damage, even death, which is why early detection is critical.
Oral Cancer Can be Tricky to Diagnose -- 25% are Non-Smokers With NO Symptoms
Due to the disease going unnoticed for long periods, oral cancer is commonly discovered in its late stages. At this point, oftentimes it has already spread to another location, such as the lymph nodes. This makes the prognosis for recovery much worse because the tumor has settled deep inside the surrounding tissues. What makes diagnosis especially difficult is that oral cancer can flourish without causing any pain or lesions you may recognize as cancer.
Signs and Symptoms to Watch Out For …
When abnormal cells develop in your mouth, red or white spots develop. Some of these spots are harmless, while some are cancerous or pre-cancerous. However, around 25 percent of people with oral cancer are non-smokers, non-drinkers and show no symptoms. Some additional signs you should be aware of are:
- A change in the color of your gums or surrounding tissues.
- Mouth sores that easily bleed and do not heal
- Pain or numbness within your mouth or on your lips
- You find it difficult to chew, swallow, speak or move your jaw or tongue
Alcohol and Tobacco Use are Major Risk Factors
Combining alcohol with the use tobacco products definitely increases your risk of oral cancer. In addition, extended exposure to the sun and its ultraviolet (UV) rays also increases the risk of oral cancer. Although the use of tobacco products is considered to be the largest risk factor for oral cancer, around one-quarter of people with oral cancer do not have any known risk factors at all. That said, more women have been diagnosed recently due to the high number of women who are now smoking tobacco. In 1950, more men were diagnosed with oral cancer at a 6:1 ratio.
In 2002, that ratio changed to 2:1, so by no means should oral cancer be considered solely a "man's disease."
Some other risk factors you may not be aware of are:
Gender: Men develop oral cancer more often than women
Fair Skin: Studies have shown that people with fair skin have a higher risk for developing lip cancer
Poor Oral Hygiene: People with poor oral hygiene may have an increased risk of oral cancer
Poorly Fitting Dentures or Dental Appliances: Constant irritation from dentures that do not fit well can contribute to increased oral cancer risks
Poor Diet: If your diet is low in in fruit, vegetables or vitamin A, the risk of oral cancer increases
Weak Immune System: Having a weakened immune system can cause a higher risk of oral cancer
Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus. HPV is linked to oral cancers that develop in the upper throat and back of tongue
Can Oral Cancer be Prevented?
There are many strategies to reduce your risk, and one of the easiest is to avoid tobacco products and the excessive use of alcohol. Studies also suggest that eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables may be able to prevent the development of cancerous lesions of all kinds, including those in your mouth. Seeing your dentist regularly is also essential to the early detection of cancerous cells or lesions, when treatment is most effective.
Part of your regular dental exam should be an oral cancer screening conducted by your dentist. He or she is able to thoroughly examine your entire mouth and surrounding tissues to detect cancerous or pre-cancerous lesions you may not know are there.
Remember, cancerous and precancerous sores often look just like harmless mouth sores. It takes a trained eye to screen your mouth for suspicious sores or lesions. Your dentist may choose to test some of those sores to tell them apart from healthy tissues. This can be done using a simple test, known as a brush test, during which your dentist collects cell samples from a suspect lesion in your mouth, then sends them off to a laboratory for testing and analysis. If the cells are cancerous, a biopsy will be performed and the lesion can be surgically removed if necessary.
Oral Cancer Foundation: Evidence for a Causal Association Between Human Papillomavirus and a Subset of Head and Neck Cancers
Oral Cancer Foundation: Tongue and Tonsil Carcinoma Increasing Trends in the U.S. Population Ages 20–44 Years
American Cancer Society: Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer
Cancer.net Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer
Oral Cancer Foundation: Dental Issues