April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month

More than 40,000 Americans every year are diagnosed with oral cancer, with men and women over the age of 50 most at risk (with men twice as likely as women to get the disease).

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, a good time for people to get a better understanding of the disease, its risk factors and common symptoms, and how to screen for it.

Oral cancer refers to cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses and pharynx (throat). If not diagnosed and treated early, it can be life threatening and disfiguring.

The most common symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Swellings/thickenings, lumps or bumps, rough spots/crusts/or eroded areas on the lips, gums or other areas inside the mouth
  • White, red or speckled patches in the mouth
  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • Unexplained numbness, loss of feeling, or pain/tenderness in any area of the face, mouth, or neck
  • Persistent sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within two weeks
  • A soreness or feeling that something is caught in the back of the throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Hoarseness, chronic sore throat or change in voice
  • Ear pain
  • A change in the way teeth or dentures fit together
  • Dramatic weight loss

What causes oral cancer? The most common risk factors are:

  • Smoking – including the use of cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, or pipes
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • A family history of cancer
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)

It is important to note that over one quarter of all oral cancers occur in people who do not smoke and who only drink alcohol occasionally.

In addition to eliminating those risk factors you can control, the best way to limit the likelihood of oral cancer is to take an active role in its detection. This means:

  • Conducting a monthly self-exam. Using a bright light and a mirror, look and feel your lips and the front of your gums, the roof and floor of your mouth, the lining of your cheeks, the back gums, and the back of your mouth. Feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes on both sides of your neck and under your lower jaw. Should you notice any changes, make an immediate appointment with your dentist.
  • Seeing your dentist on a regular schedule. Since dangerous spots or sores in the mouth can be very tiny and difficult to see, it is recommended that you ask your dentist to perform an oral exam during your dental appointments.