Oral Cancer: Don’t Lose that Beautiful Smile

Okay, don’t turn the page just yet. It may not be easy to listen to health information on cancer. Sometimes it makes people so uncomfortable that they completely tune out what’s important. An article on oral cancer is not meant to scare you or make you paranoid. I want to help you save that beautiful smile. Rather I hope this article can give you essential information on prevention and early detection of oral and oropharyngeal cancer for yourself, family or friends.

The term “oral cancer” refers to cancers that begin in the oral cavity, which includes the lips, cheeks, gums, tongue, floor and roof of the mouth. The term “oropharyngeal cancer” refers to cancers that start in the throat, next to your mouth. The good news, according to the American Cancer Society, is that new cases of oral and oropharyngeal cancers (together referred to as oral cancer in this article) have been decreasing over the past 20 years. The death rate for this disease has also been on the decline over the past 25 years. Unfortunately, the number of affected people is still significant. In 2005 alone there were an estimated 29,000 new cases of oral cancer diagnosed, while an estimated 7,000 people died of this disease.

Therefore, it is important to be aware of what may contribute to these cancers, how to prevent it, and to know the signs and symptoms. Two of the main risk factors for oral cancer are tobacco and alcohol use. Tobacco use takes the form of smoking and using chewing tobacco. The American Cancer Society cites that about 90% of people with oral cancer use tobacco, and the risk increases with amount or duration of use. About 75% of people with these cancers drink considerable amounts of alcohol. People who use tobacco or alcohol alone are six times more likely to contract oral cancers. The combined use of the two leads to the highest severity in risk factors.

Tell Your Dentist or Cosmetic Dentist if You Have Any of These Symptoms

The American Dental Association adds that oral cancer is more likely to occur in those over 40 years old, and those who are male. Interestingly, more than 25% of oral cancers occur in people who do not smoke and have no other risk factors. So everyone can benefit from this information. In addition, the risk of contracting lip cancer increases with prolonged exposure to the sun.

The American Cancer Society states the signs and symptoms to look for are:

  • Sore in the mouth that does not heal (most common symptom)
  • Pain in the mouth that doesn’t go away (also very common)
  • A persistent lump or thickening in the cheek
  • A persistent white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth
  • A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat that doesn’t go away
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw
  • Voice changes
  • A lump or mass in the neck
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent bad breath

Obviously some of these symptoms are more general and may be caused by something unrelated to oral cancer. Know what’s normal for you, then when an unusual situation arises you’ll be able to detect it and discuss it historically with your dentist or physician.

At your periodic dental examination appointment, your dentist will do an oral cancer exam of your entire mouth. This is an ideal time to talk to your dentist about your risk factors for oral cancer and other concerns. In addition, if you want to minimize or eliminate risk factors you have for oral cancer, there are many sources of information in your area or on the Internet.

Quit Smoking and Retain Your Beautiful Smile

For example, if you want to quit smoking, you can start by asking your physician or dentist for their recommendations. There are also resources online or in our community, such as the Hawaii Tobacco Quitline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (784-8669) or www.CallitQuitsHawaii.org (you may have seen their ads on television). The Quitline can provide free information and referrals, discuss therapies (e.g. nicotine patch), and link callers with support services. For those who do not have insurance to cover the nicotine patch or other therapies, they may qualify to participate in a program that provides free therapies to quit smoking.

In so many ways our oral health affects our overall health, such as by nutritional intake or oral diseases. It’s always important to be aware of how we can maintain our health and take strides to improve it, or prevent disease. (For more information on oral cancer you can visit the American Dental Association website at www.ada.org, or the American Cancer Society website at www.cancer.org.)

Dr. Wynn Okuda is an award winning international leader in cosmetic dentistry. He is one of only 280 dentists in the world to be accredited by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD). Dr. Okuda turned the dental profession on its head nearly a decade ago, replacing pain, fear, & discomfort with the Dental Day Spa system. His offices for cosmetic, restorative and implant dentistry are located in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Dr. Okuda has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, American Spa, Shape Magazine, Better Homes & Garden, Health & Fitness Sports Magazine, New Woman, and dozens more!

Dr. Okuda is the founder of “Give Back A Smile,” a charitable foundation of the AACD which helps survivors of domestic violence throughout the nation to restore their smiles and lives. He has assembled nearly 1,000 cosmetic dentists nationwide to help fight against domestic violence.