When people think about cancer, they don’t usually think about oral cancer. Yet, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 54,000 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2022, leading to more than 9,750 deaths. That adds up to an astonishing 147 diagnoses a day and roughly one death per hour, 24 hours per day. As April marks Oral Cancer Awareness Month, it’s an important time to discuss the facts of oral cancer — and how it can be prevented.
We consulted with two DentaQuest providers, Steven Barefoot, DDS, and Amber Bonnaig, DDS, to help understand the basics of oral cancer prevention and how we should be screening for it in our own mouths.
As with many cancers, early detection is key.
“Unfortunately, most oral cancers are not detected early and that contributes to a five-year survival rate of only 57%,” Barefoot says. “There are several issues that contribute to the continued rise in oral cancer cases. One is that there is no national screening policy for oral cancer and that means early cancers may not be detected. The lack of public awareness around the disease is also a contributing factor, as people don’t know how to self-assess a potential problem.”
Understanding how to prevent this disease begins with understanding how it develops. Many people associate oral cancers with tobacco use but might be surprised to know that, according to the CDC, human papillomavirus (HPV) is thought to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States.
The good news is, there are specific actions that any individual can take to lower the chance of getting oral cancer. One is, as expected, to steer clear of any and all tobacco products or to quit immediately. The second is to get the HPV vaccine, as it can reduce the risk of oropharyngeal cancers. The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for children ages 11 to 12 and also for everyone through age 26 that has not already received the vaccine.
Regular preventive dental checkups are another critical way to combat oral cancer. However, because most routine dental visits only happen twice a year, it is important to understand what to look for between visits.
“After completing the dental exam, I also teach patients how to do a self-examination,” says Bonnaig, adding, “This exam helps patients keep a close eye on any changes they notice, so if they see something unusual, they can call me or another dentist immediately.”
While a self-examination is not a replacement for a dental visit, it is an important tool to increase early detection. Here’s how Bonnaig instructs patients to examine the mouth, throat and neck for signs of oral cancer:
- Feel your lips, the front of your gums and the roof of your mouth.
- Feel your neck and under your lower jaw for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes.
- Use a bright light and a mirror to look inside your mouth.
- Tilt your head back and look at the roof of your mouth.
- Pull your cheeks out to view the inside of your mouth, the lining of your cheeks and your back gums.
- Pull your tongue out and look at the top, bottom and sides. Gently push your tongue back so you can see the floor of your mouth.
“To reference one of my oral pathology instructors from dental school, the most important thing we can do as general dentists screening for cancers is to know what normal tissue looks like and what abnormal tissue looks like. The same is true for self-exams,” Barefoot says. “You’ll be looking for anything that you haven’t seen before — a white patch, a dark spot, red bumps or maybe swelling.”
CheckYourMouth.org is a great resource that details what to look for in each area of the mouth. The site can guide people through what to look for, how to look for it and the tools needed to do so.
“The most important thing people should know about preventing oral cancer is that making healthy life decisions will significantly reduce the likelihood of being affected by oral cancer,” says Bonnaig. “Stop using tobacco or don’t start. Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all. Avoid excessive sun exposure to your lips. Lastly, see your dentist regularly. As part of a routine dental exam, ask your dentist to inspect your entire mouth for abnormal areas that may indicate mouth cancer or precancerous changes.”
Together, these steps could help prevent a disease that plagues more than 50,000 people per year, saving thousands of lives in the process.
If you have any questions or concerns about your oral health, especially about oral cancer, please contact your dental provider immediately and set up an appointment.