Oral cancer kills more than 9,750 people each year in the United States or about one person every hour.
The key to preventing deaths and serious consequences from oral cancer is early detection, and to raise awareness. Milwaukee VA Medical Center dentists will host a virtual information session for its Veterans later this month.
Drs. Kristine Schedler and David Kachelmeyer will discuss the types of oral cancer, the causes and symptoms, how to prevent it and what people can do to maintain a healthy mouth.
“Just like for all cancers, early detection is important,” Schedler says. “That can really have a positive impact on outside treatment outcomes.”
Schedler noted that oral cancer is difficult for people to detect on their own because it can occur in hard-to-see areas inside the mouth, such as the back of the tongue or near the tonsils.
Difficulty swallowing may be an indicator
A sore or lump that doesn’t clear up in due time, or difficulty swallowing, may be indicators. “Don’t ignore those symptoms. Definitely get them looked at,” Schedler added.
Kachelmeyer said some of his colleagues in the Milwaukee VA dental clinic have detected lesions that were found to be cancerous. And the effects of oral cancer can be devastating.
“To have oral cancer really affects the psychological state and the quality of life,” Kachelmeyer said. “It can lead to tongue resections, tooth loss and major issues affecting appearance, talking, functioning and things we take for granted.”
Causes of oral cancer
So what causes oral cancer? There are three major high-risks behaviors: smoking, chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol. But those aren’t the only contributors. There are others, including viral infection.
“The population of people at risk has increased and you may not know if you’ve been exposed to those viruses,” she said, noting a link between HPV and oral cancer.
Schedler says HPV may be a significant factor in more younger people developing oral cancer. There is a vaccine for HPV which is recommended for children around age 11, though it can also be given to young adults.
“We want to broaden the net to not only educate and spread awareness but also offer screenings for Veterans who receive dental care,” Schedler said. Those screenings aren’t available yet due to ongoing pandemic restrictions, but the dentists hope to offer them in the near future.
Detecting possible oral cancer is one more reason why people need to have regular checkups twice a year.
“Seeing your dentist regularly will already decrease the chances that something goes undetected. Good oral health – brushing and flossing regularly – are the best ways to prevent oral cancer.
And people with dentures still need to see their dentists regularly.
“We recommend they be seen at least once a year and a big part of that is to do an oral cancer screening,” he said.
“Everything in dentistry comes down to prevention, seeing your dentist and doing your job at home. Brushing and flossing are the keys to preventing a lot of these dental problems.
“A clean, healthy mouth definitely decreases your risk for a lot of problems.”
Signs and symptoms or oral cancer
- Any sore that does not heal within 14 days.
- A red, white, or black discoloration of the soft tissues of the mouth.
- Any abnormality that bleeds easily when touched.
- A lump or hard spot in the tissue, usually border of the tongue.
- Tissue raised above that which surrounds it, a growth.
- A sore under a denture, which even after adjustment of the denture, that does not heal.
- A lump or thickening that develops in the mouth.
- A painless, firm, fixated lump felt on the outside of the neck, which has been there for at least two weeks.
- Sensation that something is stuck in the throat when swallowing or other difficulty in swallowing.
- Ear pain that occurs on one side only.
- Unexplained numbness in the mouth or lips.
- Hoarseness or sore throat that does not resolve within a few weeks.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month.