Nearly 40,000 Americans receive an oral cancer diagnosis each year, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Of those individuals, only 57 percent will still be alive in five years. This alarming figure places the mortality rate for oral cancer at a higher number than other forms of the disease that receive more public exposure, such as throat, testicular, thyroid, and skin cancer.
The high mortality rate associated with oral cancer has little to do with the difficulties of discovering and diagnosing the disease, but speaks more to how late in its progression oral cancer is generally uncovered. Confoundingly, the technology and methods used to detect oral cancer have never been better. So why do so many cases of oral cancer go unnoticed until it’s too late? Unfortunately, many patients fail to schedule regular oral cancer screenings, and don’t know how the early signs of the disease manifest themselves so they can alert Dr. Williams about their concerns.
What to Look For
To the untrained eye, oral cancer can appear as a harmless looking lesion that often goes unnoticed. In its early stages, oral cancer appears as a tiny, white or red blemish or sore that can form anywhere on the oral cavity, including the lips, gums, lining of the cheeks, and tongue. Because the early signs of the disease look so innocuous, most patients don’t become alarmed enough to have any suspicious lesions looked at by their dentist. Patients who fail to schedule regular checkups with Dr. Williams miss the opportunity to undergo routine oral cancer screenings that could detect the disease before it has the opportunity to metastasize.
Oral cancer also presents more obvious signs that patients need to stay aware, and can include:
- Sores that easily bleed and do not heal
- A change in color of oral tissue
- The formation of a lump, rough spot, or crusted area anywhere in the oral cavity
- A felling of pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in the mouths or on the lips
- A difficulty moving the jaw or tongue that makes chewing, speaking, or swallowing difficult
- A shifting of the teeth that causes them to fit together differently
Certain risk factors can also increase a person’s chances of developing the disease. Frequent and prolonged exposure to the sun increases the risk of developing lip cancer, and while smoking and the consumption of alcohol can also greatly increase a person’s risk, oral cancer can occur in individuals who don’t smoke or engage in other known risk factors.
What to Expect During an Oral Cancer Screening
Oral cancer screenings include an inspection of the entire mouth, and are a routine part of a dental examination. During your exam, Dr. Williams will check your lips, gums, tongue, and the rest of your oral tissue for any suspicious looking lesions or sores. If Dr. Williams sees something of concern, he might elect to perform a test on the area, such as a brush test, to determine if the lesion is cancerous. A brush test collects cells from the suspect area of your mouth so they can be sent to a lab for testing. If the results show the area contains precancerous cells, the lesion can be removed through surgery.
The number of patients who receive an oral cancer diagnosis has increased five-fold in recent years despite the continued advances in detection and treatment. Help to lower your risk of oral cancer by staying vigilant of any early signs of the disease, and by maintaining a regular schedule of checkups and cleanings. Because when it comes to oral cancer, prevention can make all the difference.