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What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer word cloud in blue text

Oral cancer is a growing American epidemic that is not as well known as other types of cancers. Despite the fact that many are not familiar with oral cancer, it is estimated by The Oral Cancer Foundation that new cases will affect 53,000 Americans as of 2019. One of the reasons why it is not as well known as other cancers is because there is currently no national screening protocol in effect. This lack of national screening protocol is also a reason why The Oral Cancer Foundation also believes that the total number of cases will continue to rise with each passing year. 

With a projected increase in the number of newly diagnosed cases, it is only a matter of time before someone you know is affected by oral cancer. But, what exactly is oral cancer and how do you protect yourself and your family from developing it?

Oral cancer is a broad term used to describe a number of cancers that affect the oral and oropharyngeal region. Oral cancer is any overgrowth of cells in such structures as the mouth, tongue, cheeks, lips, sinuses, hard and soft palate, tonsils, or throat. As with most cancers, the overgrowth of cells is often harmful to the surrounding structures and/or tissues. 

Diagram showing the various places oral cancer can occur and what it looks like

Because oral cancer causes an overgrowth of cells in the face, mouth, or neck region that can be harmful to the surrounding structures or tissues, there are a range of symptoms that can occur in this region as a result. The following symptoms can be an indicator or oral cancer: 

  • Unexplained bleeding, numbness, or pain
  • Ear pain
  • Inability to properly chew, speak, swallow, or move the jaw or tongue
  • Patches in the mouth that are velvety white, red, or speckled with both colors
  • Sores that bleed and do not heal in 2 weeks
  • Changes in the bite alignment
  • Soreness in the throat or feeling that something is permanently stuck
  • Changes in the voice, hoarseness, or chronic sore throat

While anyone can develop oral cancer, the risk for men is two times that of women and is even higher for men over the age of 50. Additionally, individuals who smoke, use smokeless tobacco, or drink excessive amounts of alcohol are at an increased risk. Smoking and excessive alcohol use can increase the risk by as many as six times, while smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco, dip, snuff) can increase the risk by fifty times!

Woman holding a broken cigarette and pointing to her stained teeth

As unfortunate as it is, about 25% of oral cancer cases are found in those that have no history of smoking or excessive alcohol use. In these cases, risk factors could include a family history of cancer, excessive sun exposure, or exposure to a certain strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV). 

If oral cancer is diagnosed in stages 1 or 2, then there is still a 70-90% five year survival rate. This is why so many dentists advocate for regular oral cancer screenings during dental exams. Even in the more advanced stages of oral cancer, it is estimated by the National Cancer Institute that about 60 of those diagnosed with oral cancer will survive for 5 years. Nevertheless, it is still important to schedule regular dental exams to screen for oral cancer. 

At Fox Valley Dental, our dentists perform oral cancer screenings during your semiannual dental checkups. During your dental checkup, you will discuss your medical history, medication list, and whether or not you are experiencing any types of symptoms. Then, our dentists will perform a visual examination of your teeth, mouth, bite, and gums. To screen for oral cancer, they will also carefully evaluate your lips, inner cheeks, tongue, floor and roof of your mouth, tonsils, sinuses, and throat. 

During a visual exam, a light is often used to get better visualization of the structures. Some types of light can also cause abnormal tissue to stand out more. A blue dye may also be used to help your dentist identify abnormal tissue because blue dye tends to be absorbed by abnormal tissue. 

In addition to a visual exam, our dentists will also perform a mini physical of sorts, where they will gently palpate certain structures around the jaw, under the chin, and within the oral cavity to detect any lumps or other anatomical abnormalities. Physical touch is also used to determine if there is any pain present in those structures. 

Doctor palpating under the jaw and looking in patient's mouth

Once your exam is complete, our dentists will relay any of their findings to you and make a treatment plan as needed. It is important to note that oral cancer screenings are not necessarily meant to be diagnostic, rather they are precautionary. In some cases, our dentists may choose to monitor you over a series of time and you may need to come back for regular follow ups. 

If our dentists believe that you may have early signs or symptoms, or if they see anything suspicious, you will likely be referred to your medical doctor for further testing. While the specific testing required may vary by doctor, biopsies are a common diagnostic technique for oral cancer. A biopsy is a removal or cells or tissue that is sent to a medical laboratory for further study. A brush biopsy removes cells, while a tissue biopsy removes a piece of tissue. The type of biopsy you need will often depend upon the location of your symptoms. 

If you are diagnosed with oral cancer, your treatment will often begin immediately and can vary depending on the stage and location. Treatment for oral cancer follows the same patterns as treatments for other cancers. Thus, any cancerous tumors or tissues are usually surgically removed and then radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy is often used to treat any remaining cancer cells and prevent them from spreading or starting another tumor. 

In addition to the traditional cancer treatments, it is also highly important to get the proper nutrition and to keep your mouth healthy. Often times, oral cancer can make chewing or swallowing difficult, which can complicate eating altogether. However, getting ample nutrients is a large part of helping your body to fight. Your doctor may discuss specialized diets with you or refer you to a nutritionist for further advice. 

Keeping your mouth healthy is another highly important part of oral cancer treatment. Just as you need to keep your body as healthy as possible with good nutrition, you need to keep your mouth as healthy as possible by keeping it properly moisturized and clean. This means brushing twice a day with a fluoridated toothpaste and flossing once a day. Additionally, your dentist may prescribe other types of specialized care to help with your particular type of oral cancer. 

If you are interested in getting an oral cancer screening, schedule a consultation with Dr. Dokhanchi and Dr. Micaletti of Fox Valley Dental today! We are proud to serve Aurora, as well as the surrounding communities of Sugar Grove, North Aurora, Batavia, Geneva, Montgomery, Oswego, and Naperville. 

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