Despite the fact oral cancer is diagnosed in 30,000 Americans each year – and less than 60 percent of those diagnosed will survive – many people lack any real familiarity with the condition.
To combat these trends, Nelson Rhodus, D.M.D., M.P.H., from the Department of Diagnostic and Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota’s School of Dentistry, wants to put a bright spotlight squarely on oral cancer’s risk factors.
"Oral cancer is one of the most curable diseases when caught early, but most people don’t know the warning signs,” said Rhodus. “When early-stage oral cancer is found, treatment is simple, less invasive and more than 90 percent successful. The problem is most people don’t know what to ask their dentist.”
According to Rhodus, early warning signs of oral cancer include:
• A sore that does not heal in two weeks
• A swelling, lump or growth
• Sudden change in color or size of a mole
• Difficulty swallowing
Recognizing warning signs is only one way people can reduce their risk of oral cancer. Knowing risk factors can also play a part.
While tobacco use remains the number one cause of oral cancer, excessive alcohol consumption may also put someone at a higher risk.
In addition, a growing number of young, non-smoking individuals are being diagnosed with oral cancer. This is being attributed to human papilloma virus (HPV), the same virus responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. Research shows few people realize this sexually transmitted disease is a risk factor for oral cancer.
So what can someone do from the dentist chair?
Detecting oral cancer can be as simple as an exam during a routine check-up. A dentist should examine the cheeks, gums, the floor of the mouth, areas behind the teeth, as well as the palate and tonsil area by pulling the tongue forward.
“The best line of defense after controlling habits like smoking and alcohol use, is to ask your dentist for an oral cancer exam and to pull your tongue,” says Dr. Rhodus. “If your tongue was pulled, you know you had an exam.”
--- Laurel Herold