April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month

Every hour, 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year, someone dies of oral or oropharyngeal cancer. Yet, if oral cancer is detected and treated early, treatment-related health problems are reduced and survival rates may increase.

This year, an estimated 54,0001 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed. Of those individuals, 43% will not survive longer than five years, and many who do survive suffer long-term problems, such as severe facial disfigurement or difficulties with eating and speaking.

The death rate associated with oral and oropharyngeal cancers remains particularly high because the cancers routinely are discovered late in their development.

This April, as the United States observes the 22nd Annual Oral Cancer Awareness Month, the Academy of General Dentistry Foundation, the American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology, the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (myoms.org), the American Academy of Oral Medicine, the American Academy of Periodontology, the American College of Prosthodontics, the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, and the California Dental Hygienists’ Association are again joining the non-profit Oral Cancer Foundation in its campaign to raise awareness of oral cancer screenings and the importance of early detection.

Regular oral cancer examinations performed by oral health professional remain the best method for detecting oral cancer in its early stages.

Be mindful of symptoms: Public urged to “Check Your Mouth”

For the third straight year, the efforts of the Foundation and the dental associations cited above will be bolstered by the Oral Cancer Foundation’s Check Your Mouth™ initiative.

“Check Your Mouth” encourages the public to regularly check for signs and symptoms of oral cancer between dental visits, and to see a dental professional if they do not improve or disappear after two or three weeks.

Signs and symptoms of oral cancer which is predominantly caused by tobacco usage and/or excessive alcohol usage may include one or more of the following:

  • Any sore or ulceration that does not heal within 14 days
  • A red, white, or black discoloration of the soft tissues of the mouth
  • Any abnormality that bleeds easily when touched (friable)
  • A lump or hard spot in the tissue, usually border of the tongue (induration)
  • Tissue raised above that which surrounds it; a growth (exophytic)
  • A sore under a denture, which even after adjustment of the denture, that does not heal
  • A lump or thickening that develops in the mouth
  • A painless, firm, fixated lump felt on the outside of the neck, which has been there for at least two weeks
  • All the above symptoms have the commonality of being persistent and not resolving.

Signs and symptoms of HPV-caused oropharyngeal cancer may include one or more of the following (which may persist longer than two-three weeks):

  • Hoarseness or sore throat that does not resolve within a few weeks
  • A swollen tonsil on just one side. This is usually painless
  • A painless, firm, fixated lump felt on the outside of the neck, which has been there for at least two weeks
  • A persistent cough that does not resolve after many days
  • Difficulty swallowing; a sensation that food is getting caught in your throat
  • An earache on one side (unilateral) that persists for more than a few days
  • All the above symptoms have the commonality of being persistent and not resolving

Risk factors

Research has identified a number of factors that may contribute to the development of oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Historically, those at an especially high risk of developing oral cancer have been heavy drinkers and smokers older than age 50, but today the cancer also is occurring more frequently in non-smoking people due to HPV16, the virus most commonly associated with cervical cancer.

The sexually transmitted human papillomavirus 16 (HPV) is related to the increasing incidence of oropharyngeal cancer (most commonly involving lymphoid tissue occurring in the tonsils or the base of the tongue). Approximately 99% of people who develop an HPV oral infection will clear the virus on their own.

In approximately 1% of individuals the immune system will not clear the virus and it can lay dormant for decades before potentially causing a cancer, this occurs mostly in a non-smoking population composed of males four to one over females.