No one wants to think about getting cancer. But understanding the risk factors for and how to deal with certain types of cancer, such as oral cancer, is important for early detection and for increasing survival rates. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, around 2 percent of cancers diagnosed in the U.S. each year are oral cancers, and there are around 36,000 cases diagnosed each year. While more than half of people diagnosed with oral cancer survive for at least five years, nearly 8,000 people die from it each year.
Seeing your dentist or periodontist regularly means that he or she can detect any signs of cancer before the disease has a chance to progress or metastasize. This early detection might save your life.
What Causes It?
Changes or mutations in a cell’s DNA can lead to oral cancer. The mutated cells continue to divide, eventually leading to a tumor. Although the specific cause of the mutations that lead to oral cancer isn’t fully understood, there are a number of risk factors that are thought to increase a person’s risk for developing cancer.
Smoking isn’t just one of the major risk factors when it comes to gum disease, which causes about 50 percent of all cases, according to the CDC. It’s also one of the leading causes of oral cancer. It’s not only smoking that is thought to increase a person’s risk for developing oral cancer, though. Smoking combined with heavy alcohol use is also a considerable risk factor.
Other factors that can increase a person’s risk for oral cancer include an HPV infection, poor diet and sun exposure. While a history of poor oral health or gum disease doesn’t directly cause oral cancers, it can increase a person’s risk for HPV, which can in turn increase cancer risk.
How It Is Diagnosed
A dentist can examine a patient and look for signs of oral cancer. The physical examination will include inspecting all areas of the mouth, looking for sores, white patches or other areas of irritation. During the examination, he or she may use a tool such as Oral ID, a screening device that uses fluorescent light to detect any abnormalities in the mouth. When the light shines on normal, healthy tissue, it looks green. But when it shines on cancerous cells or an abnormality, the lesion looks dark.
If anything suspicious is found, the dentist may perform a type of oral surgery or biopsy to remove a sample of the area for testing. In some cases, the irritation or white patch might not be a major concern, but it is worth testing it to make sure.
The way the cancer is treated depends on how large it is and how much it has spread. A simple surgical procedure might be all that is needed to remove a small tumor from the mouth completely. If the cancer has spread to other areas, such as the neck, a more involved surgery, involving cutting away part of the neck, may be required. Depending on how much tissue is removed during the surgery, a patient might need additional treatments, such as bone grafting and implants, to restore any teeth removed during it.
In some cases, a person might not need surgery if the tumor is still very small. In those instances, radiation therapy, which kills the cancer cells, might be all that is needed. A person might also benefit from having radiation therapy after the tumor is surgically removed to ensure that all the cancer cells are removed or killed.
Can You Prevent It?
While there is no way to guarantee that you’ll never develop oral cancer, there are many things you can do to greatly reduce your risk of developing it. The first thing you can do is quit smoking. If you don’t smoke, make the choice not to start. Any type of tobacco can increase your risk for oral cancer, so you’ll want to make sure you avoid cigars and chewing tobacco, as well.
Since heavy alcohol consumption is another risk factor for oral cancer, without or with smoking, it’s a good idea to limit what you do drink.
Eating a diet that contains a lot of vegetables and fruits can also cut your risk for developing oral cancer. Produce tends to be high in vitamins, which can help fight free radicals. Along with helping reduce your oral cancer risk, a diet that has a lot of veggies and fruits can also be generally good for your teeth. Some veggies, such as carrots and celery, can help sweep bits of food and debris off the surface of your teeth, making them ideal to eat when you can’t brush your teeth right away.
Having a dentist clean and inspect your teeth on a regular basis is a must, not only for preventing oral cancer, but for detecting it early. The sooner any signs of oral cancer are detected, the better your chances.
Miami periodontists Dr. John Paul Gallardo can do more than treat gum disease or periodontal disease. They can detect signs of cancer or other growths in the early stages, and help you get the best treatment possible. To schedule a check-up or exam with the periodontists, call (305) 447-1447 today.