Some symptoms of oral cancer, like a lingering pain in the mouth or difficulty swallowing, are pretty obvious. Others, though, are practically invisible. For example, you may have:
- Thickening of the tissue in your cheek
- White or red patches on gums, your tonsils, your tongue, or the lining of your mouth
- Loosening in your teeth
These symptoms can “hide” inside your mouth for quite some time, and that’s a problem. As with many cancers, early detection of oral cancer improves your chances of long-term survival. The most commonly used measure for success of cancer treatment is the five-year survival rate. According to The Oral Cancer Foundation, that rate is between 80 and 90 percent when oral cancer is detected early. If it’s not discovered until a later stage, the survival rate falls to 43 percent. That’s a pretty dramatic difference.
Your Dentist May Be First to Detect Signs of Oral Cancer
Your dentist is often involved in early detection of oral cancer. If you see us at least twice a year for dental exams, which we recommend, Dr. Rick Barfield will notice if you’re showing any of these signs of oral cancer. After all, he looks closely at your mouth using tools like our intraoral camera. Since the camera is about the size of a pen, he can use it to see into all of the nooks and crannies inside your mouth. Not only that, but he can share the images with you to show you what he has found.
If Dr. Barfields sees anything he thinks looks suspicious, he’ll likely suggest you see a specialist like an ear, nose, and throat doctor. They will examine you using more specialized tools like scopes and may also do a biopsy to determine if tissue is cancerous. If it is cancer, they will determine the most appropriate course of treatment. As with many other cancers, your options may include surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy.
Oral cancer is a category that takes in cancers of the tongue, cheeks, lips, hard and soft palate, sinuses, floor of the mouth, and throat.
In addition to not missing your bi-annual dental exams, it’s a good idea to conduct a monthly self-examination. This tutorial from Check Your Mouth will walk you through how to do it.
Make Lifestyle Changes to Lessen Your Oral Cancer Risks
With nearly every case of oral cancer, the cause(s) can be determined. While you can’t completely eliminate your risk, you can significantly lower it by knowing the most common risk factors. The single biggest one is tobacco use. It’s believed that at least 75 percent of new oral cancer cases are linked to use of tobacco – either smoking or use of smokeless tobacco.
Tobacco is an even bigger risk factor when it’s used together with alcohol. Drinking alcohol causes your soft tissues to become dehydrated, which means they will more quickly absorb cancer-causing chemicals. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, people who use tobacco and alcohol together are 15 times more likely to get oral cancer than people who don’t use these substances.
Be Aware of Other Oral Cancer Symptoms
In addition to ensuring you get at least two dental exams a year and ending risky habits like smoking, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of oral cancer. If you notice any of them, call us ASAP so Dr. Barfield can examine you. In addition to the three symptoms we mentioned at the top of the article, other warning signs include:
- Numbness or unexplained loss of feeling in your mouth, face, or neck
- Chronic sore throat or feeling that something is caught in your throat
- Difficulty swallowing or chewing
- Sores in your mouth that don’t heal, especially ones that bleed easily
- A difference in the way your teeth fit together