One American dies every hour from oral cancer, and that sad statistic hasn’t changed much over the last 40 years. However, with early detection, nearly 90% of cases can be cured.
At My Family Dentistry, we screen every patient in every exam for oral cancer using our ViziliteTM system, which is the most effective screening system for oral cancer. First, we rinse the patient’s mouth with a special solution, and then we perform an exam using a special light. Any suspicious tissue is immediately and easily visible so we can treat it in the early stages. If you’re one of our patients, you can be confident that we’ll be doing everything possible to catch any signs of oral cancer early.
However, while early detection is extremely important, prevention is always preferable.
Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, taking the form of red, white, or grey lesions or ulcers on the mucous membranes inside the mouth. Oral cancers may form on any part of the lips, mouth, or throat. In the US, it is most commonly found on the tongue and the floor of the mouth.
Men are much more likely than women to develop oral cancers – more than twice as likely, in fact – and also more likely to die as a result of their oral cancers. Risk of oral cancer increases with age, so older people with additional risk factors like those below need to be vigilant.
Risk Factors for Oral Cancer
- Using any form of tobacco
- Drinking alcohol, especially >3 units a day
- History of oral cancer
- Being overweight
- Lack of exercise
- Diet heavy in red meat and fried or grilled foods
- Sun exposure (for lip cancers)
Tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and chewing tobacco, is the most common cause of oral cancer.
The combination of tobacco and alcohol results in a greater risk of oral cancer than either factor individually. On its own, alcohol consumption is an important risk factor. People who have 3-4 drinks a day have about twice the risk as those who don’t drink.
If you’ve had oral cancer before, you need to be careful to watch for a recurrence, or cancers in the vocal cords, nose, esophagus, and trachea.
Proactive Steps You Can Take
- Quit all tobacco use
- Maintain an active lifestyle
- Eat a healthy diet
- Keep your mouth healthy with good dental hygiene
- Check your mouth for lesions regularly
- Come in for dental checkups every 6 months
- Avoid risk factors whenever possible
However, scientific studies of prevention have not yet established definitively that most of these steps can measurably and consistently reduce your risk. The exception is tobacco use – quitting will significantly reduce your risk, especially over time.
If you quit smoking cigarettes, your risk of oral cancer decreases by half within 5 years, and within 10 years of quitting, your risk will be about the same as a person who has never smoked.
Even if you’ve smoked for most of your life, there’s always a benefit to quitting, especially if you have a history of oral cancer!
Treatments for oral cancer commonly include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Survival rates are high with early diagnosis (as many as 90% of cases), but drop significantly as cases get more advanced. Just one more reason to come to My Family Dentistry, and receive a free cancer screening during every exam!
What do you do to keep your mouth healthy? Let us know in the comments!
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Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published on September 9, 2013. It has been updated for clarity and content.