It’s a cancer that most of us probably would never think to worry about because it is one that barely gets any news.
Well-known people that have dealt with oral cancer include actor Michael Douglas and athlete Tony Gwynn. Sadly, Hall of Fame baseball great Tony Gwynn succumbed to this disease at the age of 54. Oral cancer involves any malignant growth found in the oral cavity and throat. This form of cancer is the sixth most common but unfortunately has a poor survival rate. Only 57% of individuals diagnosed with this cancer will survive after five years. In comparison, about 90% of those diagnosed with breast cancer survive after five years. Oral cancer’s poor rate of survival is because it is usually detected at a later stage of its development. Like all cancers, early detection and treatment provide the best chance for survival.
Factors that increase the risk for oral cancer include tobacco use (both smoke and smokeless tobacco), heavy alcohol consumption, gender (higher rates among men), age (usually occurs at 40 years and older) and infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a common, sexually transmitted virus that has increased in prevalence over the last few years. With the increase in transmission of HPV, there has been a correlated increase in oral cancer cases, including those under the age of 40. HPV-related oral cancer is usually found at the base of the throat or tonsils. Unfortunately, sometimes these oral cancers are difficult to detect because they are not visible in the mouth and only become apparent when the cancer grows and causes a symptom such as a “lump in the throat” feeling. It can easily be dismissed as a passing irritation. The cancer can also reveal itself when it spreads to lymph nodes of the neck causing swelling.
How often do we ever look at our tongue and around our mouth? Getting regular dental checkups can certainly help with early detection. Oral cancer is commonly found on the tongue but can also be found on other areas such as inside the cheeks, floor of the mouth and roof of the mouth (palate). Signs and symptoms may include a lump, a thickened area or swelling, white and/or red area, or a sore that does not heal. Even if one doesn’t feel any symptoms, any visible lesion should not be ignored. Anecdoctally, I have heard from a couple of my own patients over the years that have shared how their oral cancer was almost missed due to a hesitation to biopsy a lesion in the mouth that did not appear to “look like cancer” when in fact it was. Fortunately, these particular patients and their doctors followed through with a biopsy to properly diagnose and treat their cancer. Any unusual symptoms or signs in the mouth or throat that do not resolve in a matter of a week or two should be evaluated.
Suspicious areas in the head and neck area can be examined, biopsied and treated by a team of doctors that include dentists, oral surgeons, otolaryngologists (ENT), oncologists, head and neck surgeons, and radiologists. Oral cancer treatment involves any combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Despite the grim statistic for survival of this type of cancer, being informed of the risk factors, making efforts to live healthfully and having routine dental and physician visits can help beat the odds.
Donna S. Bautista, DDS
General & Cosmetic Dentistry
Dental Health & Wellness for the Family
26137 La Paz Road, Suite 270