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April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month

Every April, we call attention to oral cancer and the need for awareness.  We used to be able to quickly and easily identify oral cancer risk because it usually affected people over 50 years of age with a history of tobacco and alcohol abuse.  Oral cancer is changing, and with it, so is the average oral cancer patient.  We can no longer put the high risk patients into a small well-defined category.

This is why awareness is more important than ever before!

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer encompasses any cancer that occurs in the oral cavity, so this includes cancer of the lips, soft tissues lining the inside of the mouth, and those of the jawbones.  For simplicity’s sake, we will limit this blog to the discussion of the most common types of oral cancer which are the ones affecting the lips and soft tissues.  These are most frequently categorized as squamous cell carcinomas (a common type of skin cancer).  These cancers begin on the surface and work their way inward.  If undetected, they can spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body and kill you.

What are the Risk Factors for Oral Cancer?

When it comes to oral cancer on the outer lips, just like most skin cancer, the biggest risk factor is sun exposure and damage from ultraviolet rays.  The lower lip is more frequently affected than the upper.

For intraoral cancers on the gums, inner lips, inner cheeks, floor of the mouth, tongue, and opening into the throat, there are multiple risk factors.  Traditionally, the cause for most oral cancer is the presence of a chronic irritant  (something damaging) to these lining tissues.  Scientists determined that tobacco use (of any kind) was a major risk factor, and so was alcohol abuse.  Then they learned that combining the two didn’t just double your oral cancer risk.  The combination of tobacco and alcohol multiplies the risk for oral cancer several times over.

Another chronic irritant was untreated dental disease.  Patients who have untreated cavities and gum disease have a much higher risk for oral cancer, too.  The average age of an oral cancer patient was over 50 years because it took years of exposure to these chronic irritants to cause cancer.

The “New” Oral Cancer

In recent years, both researchers and dental health professionals have seen an alarming trend in oral cancer: it is now affecting much younger people with no history of alcohol or tobacco use.  This led to investigations into other causes and risk factors.  One common factor came to the surface: infection with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).  HPV is a sexually transmitted viral infection that affects millions of Americans today.  There are multiple strains of the virus, and not all of them cause oral cancer.  However, just as some strains of HPV cause cervical cancer in women, some also cause oral cancer in both sexes.

What is an Oral Cancer Screening?

An oral cancer screening is a visual evaluation of the entire oral cavity, usually carried out by a dental health professional, to look for any signs of oral cancer.  Oral cancer screenings are extremely important to early detection of oral cancer.  When caught early, oral cancer rarely kills!

At Designer Smiles, we perform oral cancer screenings free of charge!  We include them as a part of our dental evaluations, and our dental hygienists also perform one with each professional teeth cleaning.  Every person should have an oral cancer screening at a minimum of once per year!

In addition to professional screenings, you should also do self-screenings every month.  Similar to a woman’s self-breast exam, a self-screening for oral cancer may enable you to catch a suspicious spot even earlier!  Check out this website for some great, detailed instructions on oral cancer self-screenings.

How Can I Reduce my Risk for Oral Cancer?

To reduce your risk for oral cancer, you must address each of the risk factors listed above.

  1. Sun exposure to the outer lips

In order to reduce this as a risk factor, make sure you wear chapstick with SPF included.  Read the label of yours.  Many contain SPF 15, and you can find some with even higher levels.  Reapply if you are out in the sun for multiple hours at a time.

  1. Tobacco use

Just quit.  Tobacco is only bad for you, increasing your risk for multiple types of cancer, including oral cancer.  And we don’t just mean smokeless tobacco that you hold in your mouth for an extended period of time.  Smoking and vaping both increase your risk for oral cancer, too!

  1. Alcohol abuse

Heavy alcohol consumption also does nothing good for you.  It increases your risk for liver damage, bleeding disorders, bladder cancer and oral cancer.

  1. Untreated dental disease

As we emphasized last week, your mouth is not separate from the rest of your body, and cavities aren’t just tooth problems.  The chronic infection and inflammation both cavities and gum disease cause increase your risk for oral cancer.  You can reduce this risk factor by seeing a dentist regularly and treating dental problems in a timely manner.

  1. HPV Infection

Controlling this risk factor is all about sex education.  Minimize the number of sexual partners you have (and yes, this does include oral sex).  Always use protection.  Current projections estimate that 6.2 million Americans will become infected with HPV each year.  This means oral cancer risk and incidence will only increase.

More Questions about Oral Cancer?

Call today to schedule a consultation and free oral cancer screening with Dr. Ann and Dr. Lauren!  They can help you understand your specific risk level and answer all of your questions about oral cancer.