Oral cancer has disrupted the lives of thousands of people, perhaps a loved one or co-worker you know.
What have Babe Ruth, Roger Ebert, Eddie Van Halen, George Harrison, Sean Connery, Rod Stewert and Michael Douglas in common? You guessed it, oral cancer. Several are currently post-diagnosis and thankful for the treatment that has allowed them to survive.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as you may think to discover oral cancer during routine dental and medical examinations. That’s because the symptoms are not clear cut and definitive.
Michael Douglas, the actor, experienced a delayed diagnosis of oral cancer because his symptoms were similar to many other less threatening conditions. Details about Michael Douglas and HPV will be discussed later in this article.
Common Symptoms Of Oral Cancer
The list of symptoms that are most common include the following:
- a mouth sore that doesn’t heal
- oral pain that doesn’t go away
- a cheek lump that feels different from one side to the other
- swelling under the jaw
- persistent red patches or white patches on the gum tissue or cheek
- persistent numbness
- dentures that no longer fit
- loose teeth
- tooth pain or jaw pain
- hoarseness or voice changes
- difficulty in swallowing
- bad breath
- loss of weight
If you have any of these symptoms that last for more than 10 days it’s possible that your symptoms are related to oral cancer. Have your doctor evaluate your symptoms.
He may suspect oral cancer during your examination. If necessary, additional testing might be recommended such as taking a small tissue sample and submitting it for microscopic evaluation. In other words a biopsy. This could confirm that you indeed have oral cancer. If the test is negative you can breathe a sigh of relief, but it is only as good as the tissue sample submitted.
It’s important also to see whether or not the initial symptoms subside or continue. If they continue a biopsy or more tests may be necessary.
Where Does Oral Cancer Strike?
Oral cancer can affect the lips, tongue cheeks, gums, the floor of the mouth between the tongue and jawbone and the back of the throat. Your dentist or dental hygienist can inspect many of these areas to screen for oral cancer during routine visits, but very early discover is not as common as we hope for.
If your hygienist or dentist sees or feels something unusual during your examination they may recommend follow-up treatment with an oral surgeon. Oral surgeons will see patients recommended for evaluation from many dentists and will often see early oral cancer more frequently than the average general dentist.
Since they see more suspected oral cancer they can be a better judge of whether your situation is of concern and requires a biopsy or additional treatment or just bears periodic observation.
Look For Changes To Help Discover Early Oral Cancer
Changes to the normal appearance of your lips tongue cheek or gums are more easily visualized by you in your bathroom mirror or by your dentist or hygienist. Look for symmetry. Does the right side and the left side of your mouth look the same?
Changes to saliva glands within the cheek or underneath the jaw are best discovered by feeling the glands using fingers and thumbs. Its like a breast self examination. If there is a firm lump felt within the gland on one side of the mouth and not on the other, it is cause for concern. Use both hands find out today what normal feels like so you can discover any difference in the future.
The surface color change of the lining of the mouth whether more white or red is a big concern regarding oral cancer. Some 90% of the cancers that occur in the mouth are cancers that occur in a particular cell type called the squamous cell. Those flat cells line much of the mouth and throat where color changes are evident.
Squamous cell cancers are serious. Any suspected squamous cell cancers must not be ignored but acted on immediately. Referral to an oral surgeon or ear nose and throat doctor for evaluation is essential.
During my training at the VA West Los Angeles Regional Medical Center I helped treat oral cancer patients with advanced disease. Their treatments frequently involved removal of large parts of the upper and lower jaws and a long term successful outcome was doubtful. If you have any symptoms do not down play them but have them evaluated early.
Red and White Patches Can Be Early Warnings Of Impending Oral Cancer
According to Cancer Treatment Centers of America the white patches also known as leukoplakia are cancerous or precancerous in 25% of the cases. While red patches, known as erythroplakia, are cancerous or precancerous 70% of the time.
The consequences of not acting immediately can be devastating.
If you explore cancer.gov’s website the news is not very encouraging when it comes to oral cancer.
National Cancer Institute of the National Institute of Health is unsure if oral cavity and oral pharyngeal cancer screening is helpful. More studies are necessary.
Would there really be any harm to doing regular screening? Screening may discover oral cancer that is incurable. True. But survivors are thankful that is was discovered, regardless of the stage.
There may also be unnecessary treatment because of overdiagnosis. And that is going create psychological stress associated with false positive tests. You always have the potential complication of biopsies that can lead to misdiagnosis of no cancer.
Oral Cancer Is Not The The Most Common Cancer, But It Can Be Horribly Disfiguring
The Cancer.gov website it’s estimates in 2016 that there will be over 48,000 new cases of oral cancer diagnosed in the United States. And unfortunately it is anticipated that 9600 people will die from the disease.
For men, oral cancer accounts for about 4% of total cancers. The overall annual incidence in the United States is about 11 per 100,000 men and women. Where the highest rate being in those 65 years older.
A substantial risk factors for oral cancer in both men and women is the use of tobacco. This also includes smokeless forms of tobacco such as snuff and chew. In addition to tobacco, alcohol consumption is also high on the list as a cause of oral cancer.
Fortunately many oral cancer discoveries are located in areas that are accessible to screening by both dentists and physicians. During the visual examination is when oral cancer is detected most frequently. Bimanual palpation or feeling with both hands for unusual lumps and bumps is also recommended for dentists, hygienists and physicians.
Can Sex Lead To Oral Cancer? A Resounding Yes!
Oral cancers related to HPV infections (human papilloma virus) are on the rise. Known risk factors include oral sex. The link between oral sex and cancer does not surprise most experts.
“This is not a surprise by any stretch,” Dr. Eric Genden, professor and chair of otolaryngology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, told CBSNews.com. “There’s an epidemic of HPV-related throat cancers.”
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a known sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is transmitted by oral and genital sex. HPV virus varieties include those responsible for cervical cancer and vaccines have been developed and recommended to curb their spread with the hope of reducing deadly cervical cancer.
Celebrity Oral Cancer And Public Awareness
The actor Michael Douglas brought oral cancer to the attention of many people when he told The Guardian that he got throat cancer after engaging in oral sex. It turns out the actor did not have throat cancer, but tongue cancer and the treatment was not as disfiguring as initially anticipated.
According to CNN Michael Douglas’s initial symptoms were treated with antibiotics as he complained of a general soreness at the back of his teeth. The follow-up treatment was an additional round of antibiotics three months later. Finally after speaking with a cancer survivor friend, he went to the cancer department of a hospital where a doctor performed an examination and biopsy. In 2010 it resulted in a diagnosis of stage IV oral cancer.
In spite of a discouraging initial diagnosis Michael Douglas believed, at the two-year mark, he had a 95% chance that the cancer would not return.
HPV vaccines were developed to prevent cervical and other less common genital cancers. It’s possible the HPV vaccines might prevent oropharyngeal cancers. The vaccines may prevent the initial infection with HPV varieties that can cause oral cancers. But will they actually prevent the oral cancers? It is too early to tell and more studies will need to be done.
If you suspect you have any of the symptoms mentioned earlier in this article or any others that last more than 10 days, call your holistic dentist today and schedule an appointment.