Healthy Smiles by Rita Tempel, DDS – This column is published in the Gettysburg Times, April 18, 2019
When nonprofits such as the American Cancer Society set aside an entire month to raise awareness about a disease, it’s because there’s a great need for information among the general public—and there’s often the chance of significantly improving the statistics.
That’s the case with April’s Oral Cancer Awareness Month. And since we are talking about cancer cases that occur in the mouth, your dentist is often the medical professional who first detects oral cancer.
First, let’s address the latest 2019 estimates by the American Cancer Society: About 53,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S. this year. An estimated 10,860 people will die due to these cancers in 2019. Both of these figures are up, from 2018’s numbers.
The death rate remains particularly high because oral cancer is generally discovered during its later stages; the average age of those diagnosed with oral cancer is 62. Patients who do survive with oral and pharyngeal cancer (cancer of the mouth and upper throat) suffer long-term problems such as severe facial disfigurement or difficulties eating and speaking.
Much of this is preventable!
Here are the most common symptoms. Please see your dentist if any of the following symptoms (from the American Dental Association) last for more than two weeks:
- A sore or irritation that doesn’t go away, in the mouth or throat
- Red or white patches
- Pain, tenderness or numbness in mouth or lips
- A lump, thickening, rough spot, crust or small eroded area
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue or jaw
- A change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth
- Feeling like something is caught in the throat
- Hoarseness or change in voice
According to the American Cancer Society, 7 of 10 oral cancer patients are heavy drinkers. Heavy drinking, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is an average of two drinks a day or more for men and an average of more than one drink a day for women. If you are a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker, your chances of developing oral cancer increase significantly.
While smoking, tobacco and alcohol use are still major risk factors, the fastest growing segment of oral cancer patients is young, healthy, nonsmoking individuals due to a connection with the HPV virus. The sexually transmitted disease is now associated with about 9,000 cases of head and neck cancer—specifically those occurring at the back of the tongue, in or around the tonsils—every year in the U.S., according to the CDC. People with HPV-positive cancers have a lower risk of death or recurrence, even though these cancers are often diagnosed at a later stage because it develops in difficult-to-detect areas.
Regular visits to your dentist can help detect oral cancers early! Be sure to ask your dentist for an oral cancer screening at your next checkup, and be sure to ask all of your loved ones if they’ve been screened for oral cancer. Better yet, schedule a dental appointment for you or a loved one, and share any concerns you may have with your dentist.
Please “celebrate” Oral Cancer Awareness Month in April by talking about oral cancer with your friends and family. Conversations and information can help curb the statistics associated with this largely preventable disease.
Dr. Rita Tempel is the owner and founder of Gettysburg Smiles, a cosmetic and family dental practice located at 2018 York Road (Route 30 East), Gettysburg. She is an Accreditation Candidate of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry and an American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine Qualified Dentist. For more information, see GettysburgSmiles.com, follow Gettysburg Smiles on Facebook, or call 717-339-0033.