This year 36,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer; 8,000 of them will lose their lives. That’s one person, every hour, every day. Traditionally, oral cancer has occurred less frequently than others, accounting for only 3 percent of cases in men and 2 percent in women. And it has commonly been associated with heavy drinkers and smokers above the age of 40. But because of newly identified diseases like human papilloma virus (HPV) and undetermined genetic factors, stereotypes are being rendered obsolete. As more and more cases pop up in non-smokers and non-drinkers at earlier ages, it is important to extend screenings to more than just high-risk groups. A painless dental screening is anyone’s best defense, and if the cancer is found in its early stages, a healthy recovery is much more likely.
The first sign of a cancer in the mouth is usually a lesion, lump or ulcer in the mucous membrane. This is often visible as a deep or hard-edged crack of discolored tissue on the gum, cheek, tongue or lip area. It is typically painless, but often begins to burn as the tumor advances. Other signs include an abnormal taste in the mouth or difficulty swallowing.
Oral screenings are usually performed by your dentist. But even though oral cancer is more visually noticeable than others, many cases are left undiagnosed until advanced stages due to their internal location and lax attention. In fact, the majority do not become extremely obvious to the eye until an advanced stage (III – IV), when the rate of recovery has already declined. Many times the cancer is only discovered when it has metastasized to another location, usually in the lymph nodes of the neck, making it even harder to treat successfully.
With the identification of HPV as another risk factor, it has become difficult if not impossible to define high-risk individuals. In some cases, subjects who used to be considered high risk are found to be no more susceptible than their non-smoking and non-drinking peers, particularly on the tongue.
There are, however, many tools available to help dentists spot abnormalities in the mucosal tissues of the mouth and give an earlier diagnosis. A system called Oral CDx employs a small brush to gather cheek cell samples and new screening systems provide enhanced visual detection. Ask your dentist for a screening, and if you notice any of the symptoms on your own, call immediately to set up an appointment.
Today most people pre-screen for breast, cervical and colon cancer. Similarly, most oral cancers are discovered during routine family dental services. Remember that you are the most important factor in early diagnosis. Having the soft tissue of the mouth examined at your next checkup is a simple way to protect yourself. It’s easy and it can save your life.
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