Your gums, teeth and your entire mouth can be a reflection of your lifestyle. If you smoke, drink heavily or even participate in unprotected oral sex with multiple partners, you’re creating the conditions that will perhaps cause you to suffer or even die from oral or pharyngeal cancer.
According to the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 36,500 new cases of oral cancer will be discovered this year, and the 5-year survival rate for these cancers is at 50 percent.
Of course early detection of oral lesions increases the survival rate. Yet, more than 7,800 people die of these diseases each year, which is why frequent trips to the dentist can be vital to early detection.
The Risk Factors
Patients increase their risk for oral cancer when they participate in risky behavior such as drinking, smoking or chewing tobacco, and unprotected oral sexual activity. Based on solid evidence from a report filed by the surgeon general’s office to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services as recently as this month, tobacco use directly causes cancers of the oral cavity, lips and oropharynx. (The oropharynx begins behind the roof of your mouth to the back of your throat, including the tonsils, and extends to the upper edge of the epiglottis, the small flap of tissue that prevents food from going down your windpipe.) Of course another risk factor is habitual alcohol use.
While lower in risk than tobacco use, researchers have shown that the risk for oral cancer can double for people who drink three to four alcoholic beverages a day as compared to non-drinkers. But surprisingly, the cause of the majority of recent oral cancer cases can be directly attributed to the rise of certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, specifically HPV 16, which is passed from one person to the next through oral sexual contact.
Reducing Your Risks
Patients can reduce their risk of oral and pharyngeal cancers by avoiding these risky behaviors, so in a thorough dental check-up your dentist may begin asking certain questions that are directly related to your lifestyle. These questions may sound more like questions your general physicians may ask, but you can expect your dentist to begin asking these same questions as well. Your dentist and hygienist will also, of course, be doing a very thorough oral cancer screening, looking not only at your teeth and gums but also at all the tissues in your mouth and pharynx including the underside and the sides of your tongue.
Just What Are We Looking For
At our dental office in Southfield we routinely look for evidence in the form of red or white patches, sores or lesions that don’t heal or bleed easily, thick, hard spots or lumps or areas that feel rough or encrusted. As a rule of thumb, any sore or lesion present in your mouth for over 14 days should be checked. We may ask if you’re feeling numbness, pain or if the way your teeth fit together feel strange or improper. You should also be sure to speak of any problems you have with chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your jaw or tongue. There is, of course, a time and place to be discrete about certain topics, but it’s not during your regular dental check-ups, especially when early oral cancer detection can literally save your life.
Until next time,
Dr. Mark W. Langberg, DDS, MAGD
26206 West 12 Mile Road, Suite 303
Southfield, MI 48034