April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Oral cancer is a disease that isn’t often discussed. But it’s important to talk about it because each year, there are over 300,000 people diagnosed with mouth cancer globally. This number has grown by 30% in the past ten years and has been predicted to increase even more in the coming years. One person dies from oral cancer every hour of every day. It shouldn’t be this way.
Here’s what you need to know about oral cancer and how to prevent it.
Oral cancer risk factors
Risk factors increase a person’s chances of developing cancer. Two factors greatly increase the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer (cancers of the mouth and upper throat): the use of tobacco and heavy consumption of alcohol.
Tobacco use. 85% of head and neck cancer is linked to tobacco use. Using tobacco (this includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff) is the biggest risk factor for oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Pipe-smoking has been linked to cancer in the part of the lips that is touched by the pipe stem. Those who chew tobacco or snuff have a heightened risk of developing cancers in the areas where tobacco has most contact including cheeks, gums and the inner surface of the lips.
Alcohol consumption. Frequent and heavy alcohol consumption also increases one’s risk of developing head and neck cancer. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases the risk even more.
Other risk factors
There are other factors that heighten a person’s risk of developing these cancers.
Excessive sun exposure. Cancer in the lip area is linked to excessive and unprotected exposure to the sun.
Human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV infection is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer. In the past years, HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer in the tonsils and the base of the tongue has become more common. Sexual activity, including oral sex, with someone who has HPV is the most common way to get HPV. There are different strains of HPV and certain types of cancers are more strongly linked to certain strains.
Gender. Statistically, men are more likely to develop oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
Fair skin. Those with fair skin have a higher risk of getting lip cancer.
Age. Although oral cancer can develop at any age, those older than 45 have an increased risk.
Poor oral hygiene. Those with poor oral hygiene and who lack dental care have an increased risk of oral cavity cancer.
Weakened immune system. Those with a weakened immune system have a higher risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
Poor diet. Vitamin A deficiency and a diet that is low in vegetables and fruits may increase one’s risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Chewing betel nuts may also increase one’s risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
Marijuana use. According to recent studies, people who have used marijuana have a higher-than-average risk of developing head and neck cancer.
Signs to watch out for
- Sores or ulcers that do not heal within 14 days
- Red, white or black discoloration of the mouth’s soft tissues
- Abnormalities that bleed when touched
- A lump or hard spot usually in the borders of the tongue
- A growth or raised tissue
- A sore under a denture which doesn’t heal even after the adjustment of the denture
- A lump or thickening that develops in the mouth
- A painless, firm, fixated lump on the outside of the neck that has been there for at least two weeks
- Hoarseness or a sore throat that does not resolve
- Constant coughing that does not resolve
- Difficulty swallowing and the feeling that food is getting caught in your throat
- Earache on one side that persists for more than a few days
Call your dentist right away for any immediate concerns.
Oral cancer prevention
There is continuous research on the factors that cause oral cancer. While there is no proven way to completely prevent it, you may lower your risk by making healthier lifestyle choices.
Say no to tobacco. Stopping the use of all tobacco products is the most important thing anyone can do to reduce the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
Lessen your alcohol consumption. If you really have to drink alcohol, do it in moderation.
Protect your skin (and your lips!) from sun exposure. Decrease your exposure to sunlight and protect your skin with sunblock regularly.
Reduce your risk of HPV. There are vaccines available. Limit your number of sexual partners too as having many partners can increase your risk of infection. Using a condom is not full protection from HPV during sex.
Be mindful of your oral hygiene. Take good care of your mouth and teeth by brushing and flossing regularly.
Go to your dentist for regular checkups. Not only does your dentist take care of your mouth and teeth, they are vital in early detection of oral and some forms of oropharyngeal cancer.
Help spread oral cancer awareness by sharing this link with your loved ones.