Your dentist can do more than clean your teeth and treat gum disease. They can also be an ally in the fight against oral cancer. Oral cancer, which affects the mouth or throat, is one of the most common types of cancer. It can develop on the lips or gums, inside of the cheeks, on the tongue and in the throat.
Early detection of oral cancer typically leads to better outcomes, including an improved survival rate. Your dentist can screen you for oral cancer at your next dental appointment to catch any abnormalities early. Understanding what factors can increase your risk of developing cancer in the mouth or throat can also help you take steps to reduce your risk and protect your mouth.
Here’s what you need to know about the most common risk factors for oral cancer.
Smoking and Other Tobacco Use
It might not be much of a surprise to learn that smoking and using tobacco products such as chewing tobacco is one of the leading risk factors for oral cancer. People who smoke have an increased risk of developing oral cancer.
Smoking a pipe is linked to a particularly high risk of developing cancer on the lips, in the area where the stem of the point comes into contact. The smoke inhaled from any tobacco device can contribute to cancer in the throat, such as larynx cancer and esophageal cancer.
Using smokeless tobacco can also increase a person’s risk of developing oral cancer. Often, smokeless tobacco is connected to the development of cancer on the soft tissue inside of the mouth, such as the gums and inside of the cheeks.
Drinking alcohol, particularly drinking heavily, can elevate a person’s risk of developing oral cancer. Nearly 70% of people with oral cancer also happen to be heavy drinkers. Smoking and drinking alcohol combined seems to raise a person’s risk of developing oral cancer dramatically.
Eating a nutritious diet can help to reduce your risk of developing cancer. People who eat a diet low in vegetables and fruits tend to have a higher risk of cancer than people who do eat a lot of these nutrition-packed foods.
Age and Gender
Your age and gender can also influence your risk of developing cancer. Men are more than twice as likely as women to be diagnosed with oral cancer. One reason for the elevated rates of oral cancer in men might be the fact that more men than women smoke and drink heavily.
Older people also have a higher chance of developing oral cancer compared to younger people. Often, patients with oral cancer are over the age of 55. One reason for that might be that oral cancers often take years to develop
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a fairly common virus. There are hundreds of strains of HPV, some of which are relatively harmless and merely lead to the development of benign warts (aka papillomas). Other forms of HPV can contribute to cancer. Various types of HPV can cause cancer of mouth or throat.
Since there are so many types of HPV, it’s possible to have some form of the virus and never develop cancer or even any symptoms (such as warts). But in recent years, the number of oral cancers linked to HPV has been on the rise.
How is Oral Cancer Detected?
Oral cancer can be detected by a dentist or doctor performing screening and exam. When screening for oral cancer, a dentist will inspect the mouth, looking for lumps or lesions, as well as areas of discoloration, such as white, gray or red spots. A dentist will also feel around the throat for any lumps or abnormalities.
Along with visually and manually inspecting a patient, dentists can use technology and tools when screening for oral cancer. One system uses a fluorescent light to help dentists detect early lesions. Often, in the earliest stages, cancerous lesions appear benign or normal to the human eye. The use of technology means that dentists can sometimes make a cancer diagnosis earlier, giving a patient more time for treatment and a better chance of survival.
If your dentist does spot something that might be cancerous, they will usually perform a biopsy and send the cells to a lab for testing. Depending on the size and type of lesion, they might recommend a follow-up appointment in a few weeks to monitor and reassess the situation.
Dr. John Paul Gallardo is a periodontal specialist in the Miami area who performs oral cancer screenings during the first visit and at each subsequent visit. To schedule an appointment in Miami, FL, call 305-547-8687 today.