Oral cancer, also known as mouth cancer, is becoming increasingly common, yet most people are still unaware of the symptoms and signs. Unlike some forms of cancer, including testicular, breast and cervical cancer, oral cancer does not have a high media profile and consequently a significant proportion of people are unaware of the warning signs and symptoms of the condition.
Oral cancer is not a common form of cancer but it is becoming more common; in the last thirty years alone, rates have increased by 20 percent. Oral cancer is more common in men than women and tends to affect people over the age of 40. However, recent research studies have shown that a great proportion of younger people are developing the disease as a result of lifestyle choices, a poor diet and smoking.
Symptoms of oral cancer
Symptoms of oral cancer include white or red patches in the mouth, sores which take a long time to heal or do not heal at all and the development of unusual swellings or lumps that last for more than three weeks. Cancerous cells tend to develop on the surface of the tongue, lips, mouth or gums but it can also develop in the throat, tonsils and salivary glands.
The major risk factors associated with oral cancer are smoking and heavy drinking on a regular basis; people who drink and smoke are thirty times more likely to develop oral cancer than non-smokers who drink only occasionally or not at all. Both cigarettes (and cigars and pipes) and alcohol are carcinogenic substances, meaning that they contain chemicals which can alter the DNA in cells, which can contribute to cancer. Other risk factors include chewing or sucking tobacco products, such as snus or snuff, smoking cannabis and chewing betel nuts (these are seeds from the Betel palm tree; they are very popular amongst Sri Lanka and Indian communities). HPV (human papillomavirus) has also been identified as a risk factor and research has shown that a poor diet can increase the chances of developing oral cancer.
Early diagnosis is essential
If you discover that you have symptoms of oral cancer it is extremely important to arrange to see a doctor or a dentist as quickly as possible. Early diagnosis can literally make the difference between life and death and survival rates can be boosted by up to 90 percent if the cancer is identified and treated early. If the cancer is left untreated, it may spread to other parts of the body and survival chances will decrease.
To minimize the risk of developing oral cancer, dental experts encourage patients to stop smoking, cut down on drinking, eat a healthy, balanced diet and attend regular routine dental examinations. A healthy diet should include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables as they contain a host of essential nutrients, minerals and vitamins. Cutting down on drinking and giving up smoking will also have a huge impact on your general health, as well as your oral health and you will start to feel healthier almost instantaneously.
Routine visits to the dentist
Attending regular dental exams is really important because it allows dentists to keep an eye on existing dental health issues, as well as enabling them to identify early warning signs of developing conditions. Going to see a dentist will help to ensure that your condition is caught early in the event that you develop oral cancer and this means you can be treated as quickly as possible, which will minimize the chances of the cancer spreading.
If oral cancer is caught early the survival rates are relatively high. Up to 90 percent of people diagnosed in the early stages will live for at least 5 years after the initial diagnosis and a large proportion will live for much longer. Treatment for oral cancer depends on the individual case and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Treatment usually involves a combination of surgery and therapies including radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
The advice on oral cancer is clear; keep an eye on your alcohol consumption, give up smoking if you do smoke, try to eat as healthily as possible, attend regular dental exams and watch out for early symptoms. If you do experience symptoms, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor or dentist.
Richard Keane is a freelance writer, with a particular interest in all things dentistry, having contributed to many cosmetic dentistry websites.