By: Shreyesh Ruparelia; DDS
Did you know that April is National Oral Cancer awareness month? Oral cancer is the collective term used for cancers in the head and neck region of the body. Doctors and health care workers around the globe are trying to create as much awareness regarding oral cancer as possible. This is largely because when compared to the death rate of other cancers, such as cervical cancer and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the death rate of oral cancers is strikingly higher. The primary reason for this is due to the late diagnosis of oral cancer. During the initial stages of oral cancer there are no symptoms like pain. Therefore, people typically do not present for treatment. It is only when oral cancer metastasizes (spreads) to the rest of the body that people experience pain and inform their doctors.
You are at an increased risk of developing oral cancer if the following apply to you-
- Tobacco and alcohol use – If you use tobacco in any form – smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco or snuff use – you are at a heightened risk of developing oral cancer. The same goes with alcohol consumption; reports suggest that the risk of oral cancer increases along with the increase in the quantity of alcohol consumed. Those who consume tobacco and alcohol excessively double their risk of developing oral cancer.
- Human Papilloma Virus Infection– Those who suffer from HPV infection are more prone to develop cancer. There are only some species that are potent enough to cause oral cancer like cancer at the floor of the mouth.
- Sunlight– Exposure to sun rays (especially UV rays) can cause the cells of the lips to multiply incessantly causing lip cancer. This multiplication is a response to counter the harmful sun rays.
- Familial tendency– Cancers run in families and have shown to have a strong genetic predisposition.
- Betel quid consumption– This is a nut which is consumed in most parts of Asia. The Paan leaf is spread open and a piece of betel nut with lime is put into the leaf and then chewed. The chewing is done very slowly and then the betel quid is kept within the cheek pocket. This irritates the cells that form the inner cheek lining and may cause cancer.
Oral cancer symptoms
Individuals must be aware of the general symptoms caused during the initial phases of cancer so that he/she can know what to look for. Identification of these symptoms early on is critical so that this can be reported to your dentist as early as possible. A few of the important symptoms are listed below:
- Check for patches within your mouth. You may have white patches which are the most common. Red patches are also characteristics of pre-malignant lesions.
- A sore or an ulcer in the mouth that does not heal within a week or so. This is an alarming sign and should be shown to your dentist as soon as possible.
- If you experience pain or difficulty while swallowing, you may have some swelling or a lump that needs to be addressed and treated as soon as possible
- If your dentures do not fit you any more, this can be a matter of concern.
- Inform your dentist if you get a tingling sensation or numbness on your chin area or lips.
Upon noticing any of these symptoms you should inform your dentist at the earliest opportunity. After an initial exam in order to make a correct diagnosis, your dentist will send a small biopsy of tissue to the lab where the cells are examined in detail. In the event that the tissue is deemed cancerous, treatment for oral cancer may be surgical, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or a combination of all three.
An important way to increase overall oral health is by scheduling routine visits to your family dentist. This way your dentist can note even the slightest, initial changes in your mouth and treat you accordingly. This small step taken by you can save your life!