April is not only Oral Health Month, it’s also Oral Cancer Awareness Month, which is a good time to remember that oral health includes more than just clean teeth and fresh breath. Good oral health also means having your mouth checked for signs of oral cancer.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, “studies show that people with poor oral health have a higher risk of developing oral cancer.” They also report that the risk of developing oral cancer increases as you age and is highest after you turn 45. Keep reading to learn more about what oral cancer is, it’s risk factors, symptoms, treatment and preventions.
What is oral cancer?
Oral cancer refers to all cancers of the oral cavity, which includes the following:
- Lips and tongue
- Teeth and gums
- The lining inside the lips and cheeks
- The roof and the floor of the mouth
The cancer starts in cells in the mouth. Like any cancer, the tumour is a group of cancer cells that grow and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread to other parts of the body. The most common place oral cancer spreads to are the lymph nodes in the neck.
Oral cancer risk factors
- Smoking and chewing tobacco.
- Sun exposure increases the risk of developing lip cancer. Most lip cancers occur on the bottom lip, likely because it’s more exposed to the sun.
- Infection with HPV-16 increases the risk of oral cancer. Infection with HPV-18 may also increase the risk. HPV is likely the cause of oral cancer that is not linked with tobacco or alcohol use.
- A diet low in fruits and vegetables
- People with a weakened immune system
- People with poor oral health
- Betel quid and areca nut contain cancer-causing substances.
Oral cancer symptoms
- A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal.
- A lump on the lip or in the mouth or throat.
- A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth.
- Unusual bleeding, pain or numbness in the mouth.
- A sore throat that does not go away, or a feeling that something is caught in the throat.
- Difficulty or pain with chewing or swallowing.
- Swelling of the jaw causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable.
- A change in voice and/or pain in the ear.
If you think you have any of the above symptoms, you should speak with a dentist immediately. Dentists can spot things you can’t and your dentist should be screening you for oral cancer regularly at your checkups if you are at risk.
Oral cancer treatment
The treatment for oral cancer has many determining factors including size, location and what stage it is at. The most common treatment is surgery. There are many health care specialists that will be part of any treatment.
Oral cancer prevention
The best way to prevent oral cancer is to change your habits to reduce the risks and adopt healthy habits. In brief you should:
- See your dentist for a regular dental exam.
- Quit (or reduce) your tobacco and alcohol use.
- Use a lip balm with UV protection and wear a hat.
- Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
- Brush and floss your teeth daily.
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