Oral cancer kills over 8,000 Americans a year, and leaves many more unable to talk, eat, or even swallow. Its main cause is a common virus. And unlike most cancers, it’s typically diagnosed by a dentist.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, a time when dentists like myself work to spread the word about this deadly disease and the importance of early detection.
Oral cancer signs and symptoms.
The reason oral cancer is so dangerous is because it usually goes undiagnosed until it has spread to other parts of the body. In later stages, patients may notice symptoms such as red or white patches on the tongue or mouth, persistent sore throat, a painless lump in the neck, or mouth sores which don’t heal. But, many early stage patients have no noticeable symptoms.
In the past, oral cancer was typically found in older patients with a history of excessive alcohol and tobacco use. But in the past 10 years, not only have oral cancer diagnoses shot up by 500%, they’re now typically affecting younger patients who use tobacco or abuse alcohol.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) connection.
It’s now known that HPV, the virus best known for causing cervical cancer, is to blame for the rise in oral cancer in young patients. Though the HPV vaccine can theoretically prevent the disease, it’s likely that many adults have already been exposed to the virus–and an increased risk of oral cancer. At our practice, we perform an extensive six-step screening with every checkup. The screening includes these areas:
1. Tongue: HPV-related oral cancer often shows up here first, so we make sure to examine all areas of the tongue for lumps and tissue abnormalities.
2. Lips and cheeks: We also feel around the inside and outside of your mouth, looking for lumps, bumps, and changes in tissue color and texture.
3. Gumline, roof, and floor of the mouth: Cancerous lesions can appear on any soft tissue, so we carefully examine all areas in and around the mouth for oral cancer.
4. Hard palate: Here, we check for soft areas, which could signal something unusual, as well as white or red patches of tissue.
5. Neck: Enlarged lymph nodes can signal an infection or other problem, so we thoroughly feel the neck area for any lumps.
6. Tonsils: We ask you to say “ahhh,” then examine your tonsils with a dental mirror for signs of cancer.
We take careful notes during the examination, and then refer you on for further testing if we see anything unusual. We also keep a record of your screening in your chart so we can compare your results from year to year.
Are you due for a checkup? Come see us at our beautiful new office! Call 425-885-0008 to set up your exam today.
Actor Michael Douglas talks about the common virus responsible for the rapid rise in oral cancers among younger, non-tobacco-using patients.