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When it comes to oral health, most of us focus on avoiding cavities or banishing bad breath. We don’t really think about taking any steps to prevent oral cancer.
But according to Dr. Samer Al-Khudari we should. “Unfortunately, awareness of these cancers is relatively low – including how to prevent and detect them,” says Al-Khudari, a head and neck surgeon at Rush University Medical Center.
Cancers of the oral cavity (including the lips, cheeks, and tongue) and oropharynx (including the soft palate, tonsils, and throat) can occur in a number of ways and are not always easy to spot. “Symptoms vary depending on the type of cancer,” explains Al-Khudari. “Not all patients experience pain or irritation. Sometimes symptoms are barely noticeable in the early stages.”
This is a big reason why these cancers are often only diagnosed in later stages, after they have spread to the lymph nodes.
What you need to know about oral cancer
Here are some other important things to know about oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer:
- In general, men are twice as likely to be diagnosed with this cancer as women.
- The number of patients under the age of 50 has increased steadily; and sometimes these cancers occur in young adults in their 20s and 30s.
- Patients who survive a first exposure to the disease are at greater risk of developing a second related cancer. This increased risk can last for five to ten years.
- The biopsy is the only way to properly diagnose oral and oropharyngeal tumors and lesions.
- Although these different types of cancer can occur in a small area of the body, each type has different causes and treatments.
- Patients taking immunosuppressive drugs – usually organ transplant patients – are at increased risk of head and neck cancer.
Keep your mouth and throat healthy
The good news is that these cancers are still very treatable in their later stages.
With current advances in treatment, oral cancer survival rates improved over a decade ago. In fact, some opharyngeal cancers have been found to have a 80 to 90 percent survival rate after three years.
And many oral and oropharyngeal cancers can be prevented altogether with sensible self-care and a healthy lifestyle.
Here, Al-Khudari offers five preventative tips:
1. Avoid tobacco
The longer you’ve consumed tobacco and the more often you use it, the greater the risk of head and neck cancer.
“Both smoking and smokeless tobacco always play a direct role in causing these cancers,” says Al-Khudari.
Chewing, smokeless, and snuff tobacco directly into the mouth can cause gray-white sores in the mouth called leukoplakia, which can become cancerous. Smokeless tobacco also contains chemicals known to damage a gene that protects against cancer.
2. Drink alcohol in moderation
As with smoking, the longer you consume alcohol and how much you drink, the greater the risk. That’s because alcohol plays a role in changing the body’s chemistry to lower its defenses against cancer.
According to the National Institutes of Health, people with more than 3.5 alcoholic beverages per day increase the risk of oral cancer two to three times. “You should definitely avoid drinking too much,” Al-Khudari affirmed. “Alcohol addiction and binge drinking increase a person’s risk. Excessive drinking and smoking together have a multiplying effect.”
3. Go to your dentist regularly
Very often, dentists and dental hygienists are the first to notice potentially cancerous growths.
“They usually catch things very early on in routine dental exams,” says Al-Khudari. “They can then refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist or head and neck surgeon like me. If we can confirm the diagnosis and start treatment right away, there is a good chance we can get rid of the cancer. “
In addition to going to the dentist every six months, make sure you brush and floss twice a day – and after meals – to keep your teeth and mouth healthy.
4. Get vaccinated against HPV
Human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV16, is strongly associated with oropharyngeal cancers, especially those in the back of the mouth.
“Typically, HPV-related cancers occur in men in their late 40s or early 50s,” says Al-Khudari. “They tend to have minimal symptoms, such as a swelling in the neck that they discover when they shave and that doesn’t go away.”
The best way to prevent HPV is to get vaccinated before engaging in sex. With vaccines now available that protect against two strains of HPV – recommended for 11 to 26 year olds – there is hope that the number of these cancers will decrease over time as more people are vaccinated.
And because you can get HPV through a single sexual encounter, Al-Khudari also recommends practicing safe sex.
5. Protect your lips from the sun
Lip cancer is directly related to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, and people who work outdoors and prolonged exposure to the sun are more likely to develop lip cancer.
“If you’ve had severe sunburns in the past, be extra careful with your lips. Just as your skin can burn easily, your lips are also sensitive to the sun,” says Al-Khudari.
In addition to wearing the sun exposure during peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., always wear a protective SPF lip balm when you are outside and reapply it after you eat or drink or every time you reapply sunscreen. Also wear hats that protect your face from the sun.
Oral Cancer Symptoms
Generally, warning signs of mouth and throat cancer include:
- Mouth sores that do not heal
- Bleeding in the mouth that lasts for more than a week
- Slow-growing lumps in the mouth or neck
- Pain in the mouth that lasts more than two weeks
- Dramatic voice changes, especially in smokers
- Persistent earache in both ears
- Numbness of the lower lip and chin
If you notice any of these symptoms, says Al-Khudari, see your family doctor as soon as possible. “If it is cancer, the sooner it is diagnosed, the better the chance we can treat it successfully.”
The timing and intensity of oral sex can affect oropharyngeal cancer risk, which is provided by Rush University Medical Center
Quote: Oral Cancer Prevention: Signs, Symptoms, and Precaution for All Ages (2021 April 6), accessed April 6, 2021 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-04-oral-cancer-symptoms-ages. html
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