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Head & Neck

Oral Cancer

How Common is Oral Cancer?

The Oral Cancer Foundation estimates that close to 42,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. It will cause over 8,000 deaths, killing roughly 1 person per hour, 24 hours per day. Historically the death rate associated with this cancer is particularly high, not because it is hard to detect or diagnose, but because the cancer is often discovered late in its development.

What Causes Oral Cancer?

Research has identified a number of factors that may contribute to the development of oral cancer. In the past, those at an especially high risk of developing oral cancer were over 40 years of age, heavy drinkers and smokers. While these remain major risk factors, the fastest growing segment of oral cancer patients is young, healthy, nonsmoking individuals under the age of 40. Recent research has identified the human papilloma virus version 16 as being sexually transmitted between partners and related to the increasing incidence of oral cancer in young non-smoking patients. There are also links to young men and women who use conventional "smokeless" chewing or spit tobacco. Promoted by some as a safer alternative to smoking, this form of tobacco use is actually no safer when it comes to oral cancers. Other factors that may promote oral cancer include physical trauma, infectious disease, poor oral hygiene and poor nutrition; however, the research regarding their involvement is uncertain. It is likely that there is a complex interaction of many external and internal factors that play a role in the development of oral cancer. 

What Screening Methods Exist?

The National Cancer Institute's SEER data indicate that when oral cancer is detected early, survival outcomes are improved and treatment-related health problems are reduced. Among healthcare professionals, your family dentist or Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon is in the best position to detect oral cancer during your routine dental examinations. If you are at high risk for oral cancer, you should see your general dentist or Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon for an annual exam. Our Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeons recommend that everyone perform an oral cancer self-exam each month. An oral examination is performed using a bright light and a mirror, and involves removing any dentures, looking and feeling inside the lips and the front of the gums, tilting the head back to inspect and feel the roof of your mouth, pulling the cheeks out to see the inside surface as well as the back of your gums, pulling your tongue out to look at all of its surfaces, and feeling for lumps of enlarged lymph nodes on both sides of your neck and under your jaw.

Early Detection and Treatment Provide a Better Chance for Cure

When performing an oral cancer self-examination, make sure to look for any white patches of the oral tissues (leukoplakia), red patches (erythroplakia), red and white patches (erythroleukoplakia), sore(s) that fail to heal and bleed easily, abnormal lump(s) or thickening of the tissue of the mouth, chronic sore throat or hoarseness, difficulty chewing or swallowing, and/or a mass or lump in the neck. See your Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon if you have any of these signs. If the Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon agrees that something looks suspicious, a biopsy may be recommended. A biopsy involves the removal of a piece of the suspicious tissue, which is then sent to a pathology laboratory for a microscopic examination that will accurately diagnose the problem. The biopsy report not only helps establish a diagnosis, but also enables the doctor to develop a specific plan of treatment.

A Word About Oral Care

Keep in mind that your mouth is one of your body's most important early warning systems. Don't ignore any suspicious lumps or sores. Should you discover something, call the WK Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Institute at (318) 212-5944 to make an appointment for a prompt examination. Early treatment may well be the key to complete recovery.