By Jean-Max Jean-Pierre, D.D.S., M.D.S.,
Diplomate, American Board of Periodontology
Most people don’t realize that anyone can get oral cancer. Although most mouth and throat cancers have been associated with smoking and chewing tobacco, more than 25 percent of all oral cancers occur in people who do not smoke and who only drink alcohol occasionally.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and in conjunction with doctors across the nation, you can share information and encourage your friends and family to have regular oral cancer screenings.
Most people don’t realize that anyone can get oral cancer. Although most mouth and throat cancers have been associated with smoking and chewing tobacco, more than 25 percent of all oral cancers occur in people who do not smoke and who only drink alcohol occasionally. The fastest growing segment of oral cancer patients is young, otherwise healthy, nonsmoking individuals due to the connection between oral cancer and the HPV virus.
The inside of the mouth is normally lined with a special type of skin (mucosa) that is smooth and coral pink in color. Any alteration in this appearance could be a warning sign for a pathological process. The most serious of these is oral cancer. The earlier any form of pathology is found and treated, the better will be the outcome. Regular periodontal exams and cancer screenings in the office of a dentist or periodontist enable early detection. Depending on findings, you will be appropriately referred to a specialist for biopsy and treatment that minimizes the impact of the cancer on your life.
Your dentist or periodontist should be doing an oral cancer exam at every checkup. Many clinicians offer an enhanced assessment once per year by scanning the mouth with a fluorescent light. You can also do self-examinations monthly, between clinical exams and report suspicious changes.
Signs of Oral Cancer
Because any of the following can be signs at the beginning of a cancerous growth, you should feel empowered to call your dentist or periodontist if you observe any of the following changes:
• Reddish patches or whitish patches in the mouth
• A sore that fails to heal and bleeds easily
• A rough spot, lump or thickening on the skin lining the inside of the mouth
• Chronic sore throat or hoarseness
• Difficulty in chewing or swallowing
• Numbness in the tongue or other part of the mouth
• Swelling of the jaw
• Unexplained pain facial or oral pain, although pain is not often associated with oral cancer
Use a hand mirror to examine the insides of your mouth each month and feel abnormalities inside with your tongue. By using a mirror, you may detect changes on the lips, cheeks, tongue, palate, and gum tissue around the teeth. If you have a heightened risk of oral cancer, this is highly recommended.
Tobacco Use – Up to 75% of mouth and throat cancers have been associated with smoking and chewing tobacco. The direct cause has been demonstrated to be carcinogens in the tobacco, and risk is directly correlated with the amount of tobacco used and for how long. If you smoke and are also a heavy drinker of alcohol, the risk of cancer increases more.
Alcohol Use – About 70% of people diagnosed with oral cancer are heavy drinkers. This risk is higher for people who use both alcohol and tobacco. For people who smoke and drink heavily, the risk of oral cancer may be as high as 100% more than the risk for people who do not smoke or drink.
Sun Exposure – Cancer on the lips and face is also commonly associated with sun exposure. Applying sunscreen lotion or SPF lip balm will lower the risk.
HPV – The HPV virus and other immunological disorders have been associated with increased risk. Although the incidence of HPV related oral cancer is increasing, individuals with oral cancers linked to HPV usually have a good prognosis.
Periodontal Disease – Several studies indicate an increased risk of oral tumors or precancerous lesions in the presence of gum disease, likely due to chronic irritation of periodontal gum and bone tissues. Regular dental cleanings and prompt clinical treatment of gum inflammation will eliminate this risk factor.
Save a life by sharing this information
Although the Oral Cancer Foundation (www.oralcancerfoundation.org) reports that 132 people in the United States are newly diagnosed with oral cancer every day and that one person dies every hour due to oral cancer, awareness in our nation is low. By sharing this article, you may save a life. Oral cancer can be detected early with regular annual or biannual screening, and even earlier with self-examination between screenings. Lower your risk factors, support regular screenings, and don’t delay in having an annual oral cancer assessment.
Despite your best oral hygiene efforts, you should have your teeth professionally cleaned to remove plaque and your teeth and gum tissue examined every six months. Some individuals are at higher risk for oral health problems and are advised to visit their dentist or periodontist more frequently. For more information or to come visit us for an examination, please contact us at 615-264-6404 or visit us at www.periocarecenter.com.
Jean-Max Jean-Pierre, D.D.S., M.D.S.
Nashville area periodontal specialist, Dr. Jean-Max Jean-Pierre, is the author of the new book YOUR MOUTH-YOUR LIFE. He is on a mission to educate his patients and the public about the connection between oral health and systemic health. He practices periodontics in Hendersonville, TN.