In recognition of April as Oral Cancer Awareness Month, dentists across the country are striving to shed light on a serious condition.
The Oral Cancer Foundation estimates that approximately 40,000 people in the United States will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2012, which includes cancer that occurs in the mouth itself, in the very back of the mouth and on the exterior lips.
The cancer often starts as a tiny, unnoticed white or red spot or sore anywhere in the mouth.
“Oftentimes cancer begins in the oral cavity and goes to other parts of the body,” says Dr. Barry Dubin of the Dentistry for Life, Fast Braces and Sedation Dentistry Center.
“The problem with oral cancer is you don’t know you have it,” he said noting that symptoms can present similar to a sore throat or a mouth ulcer.
With that in mind, medical professionals have been encouraging people to be screened for oral cancer every year.
“It’s very devastating when someone gets oral cancer because they could lose parts of their mouth, parts of their tongue or parts of their neck,” says Dubin.
During the screening process, a dentist will examine the inside of the mouth, the tongue and down the throat for any signs of the disease. Oral cancer can be caught early, even as a pre-cancer.
“In a painless, three to five minute oral cancer screening, most of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer can be seen with the naked eye, felt with the fingers or elucidated during the patient’s oral history interview. Suspect tissues can easily be biopsied for a definitive diagnosis,” Dr. Ross Kerr, an oral medicine specialist at New York University said in a press release.
Some advanced indicators of oral cancer include numbness in the oral region, difficulty in moving the jaw or tongue, difficulty in swallowing, ear pain which occurs on one side only, a sore under a denture, which even after adjustment of the denture still does not heal and a lump or thickening which develops in the mouth or on the neck.
According to the American Dental Association, the incidence rate of oral cancer in African Americans is one third higher than whites, and the mortality rate is almost twice as high.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, the disease causes more than 8,000 deaths per year. When found at early stages, oral cancers have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate.
“Early detection is key to survival,” says Dubin.
While most cases of oral cancer have been attributed to tobacco use, the human papilloma 16 virus (HPV) has been found to be a leading cause of the disease. HPV is one of the viruses responsible for cervical cancer in women. Due to the HPV connection, the quickest growing segment of the oral cancer population are people in the 25–50 age range.
Last year, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that there was an increase in oral cancers linked to HPV. The study suggested that one reason could be increase in the number of people having oral sex resulting in exposure to HPV.
While tobacco and alcohol use are factors in developing oral cancer, approximately 25 percent of oral cancer patients have no known risk factors.
In recognition of Oral Cancer Awareness Month, special screening events have been held in dentist’s offices around the country.
Dentistry for Life, Fast Braces and Sedation Dentistry Center is offering free oral cancer screenings on April 25 from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. in the Medical Arts Building, 1601 Walnut St., Suite 1217. No appointments are necessary.