I had a routine cleaning at the dentist yesterday and it seems each time I go they add something to just the usual scraping and flossing. They not only check pulse and blood pressure, they now do a screening for oral cancer. As the dentist was pulling on my tongue and taking a look around my mouth, I thought about oral/mouth cancer and wondered if it is really a big deal because I never hear about it. Breast, testicular, and lung cancers seem to get the most attention but they really aren’t the most common nor the most deadly of cancers, they just have organizations that are really good at getting the word out. Famous people who have had oral cancer: Jack Klugman, George Harrison, Eddie Van Halen, Rod Stewart, Roger Ebert, Babe Ruth.
In doing some research, it turns out that close to 37,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. It will cause over 8,000 deaths, killing roughly 1 person per hour, 24 hours per day. Of those 36,000 newly diagnosed people, only slightly more than half will be alive in 5 years. Why is the death rate from oral cancer higher than most others? It isn’t difficult to diagnose or treat but most people ignore or don’t notice the symptoms until it is too late to cure.
A Lifestyle Disease
Oral cancer is considered a “lifestyle” disease as the top 2 causes are Tobacco use (Both smoking and chewing) and excessive alcohol use. Exposure to ultraviolet light is also a factor and studies are showing that it is more prevalent in people with a diet low in fruits and vegetables. HPV16, a sexually transmitted disease is also linked to this cancer and is affecting more young people and women. In fact, this was a disease that affected old male smokers (look at the list above) but most new cases are in people under 50 and is greatly increasing in women. However, cancer is a very complex disease so even if you do not have any of the risk factors, you should still be aware of the symptoms as it can strike anyone.
So… why does the dentist feel your neck and look at your tongue? Many times he or she can feel tissue changes before any outward signs appear. (I kinda like the little neck massage!). Your dentist is also looking for small red or white patches on your tongue or small sores or lesions. We really should take a look around our tongue and mouth once a month and not just twice a year at the dentist. Mouth and tongue cancer often mimics a canker sore or that lesion you get when you bite your cheek. If you have a sore in your mouth that does not heal in 14 days, see your doctor. Also see your doctor if a lump or mass is felt inside the mouth or neck, pain or difficulty in swallowing, speaking, or chewing, any wart like masses, hoarseness which lasts for a long time, or any numbness in your mouth or face. If you really want a reality check- do a search for images of oral cancer- yikes!
Going to the dentist is so much more than just getting a new toothbrush it might also save your life!