Oral cancer strikes an estimated 30,000 Americans each year. To save lives, the Maine Dental Association is bringing attention to oral cancer during April’s Oral Cancer Awareness Month.
Dentists are trained to detect signs of oral cancer during routine examinations, and early detection provides the best opportunity for a cure. Unfortunately, only half of all patients diagnosed with oral cancer survive more than five years.
Oral cancer often starts as a tiny, unnoticed white or red spot or sore anywhere in the mouth. It can affect any area of the oral cavity including the lips, gum tissue, check lining, tongue and the hard or soft palate.
Anyone can develop oral cancer, with the incidence of oral cancer increasing after age 40. Oral cancer screening is a routine part of each dental examination. Regular check-ups, including an examination of the entire mouth, are essential in the early detection of cancerous and pre-cancerous conditions. You may have a very small, but dangerous, oral spot or sore and not be aware of it.
During the examination, the dentist may notice a flat, painless, white or red spot or a small sore. Although most of these are harmless, some are not. Harmful oral spots or sores often look identical to those that are harmless, but testing can tell them apart.
Dentists often will notice a spot or sore that looks harmless and does not have a clear cause. To ensure that a spot or sore is not dangerous, your dentist may choose to perform a simple test such as a brush test. A brush test collects cells from a suspicious lesion in the mouth. The cells are sent to a laboratory for analysis. If precancerous cells are found, the lesion can be surgically removed if necessary during a separate procedure. It’s important to know that all atypical and positive results from a brush test must be confirmed by additional testing.
People who use tobacco have a high risk of oral cancer. Combining alcohol with tobacco greatly increases the risk. Prolonged exposure to the sun also increases the risk of lip cancer.
Warning signs include:
• A sore inside the mouth that bleeds easily or does not heal
• A color change of the tongue or mouth tissues
• A lump, thickening, rough spot, crust or small eroded area
• Pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips
• Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving the jaw or tongue.
One of the most effective means to protect your health is to know the risk factors and see a dentist for oral cancer screenings.