April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month!

Nearly 53,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer each year.  Only slightly more than half of them will be alive 5 years after diagnosis.  The death rate is so high because it is often not discovered until late in its development. This is why early detection is so important!  As dentists, we are not just looking for cavities when we do an oral exam.  Each and every time we look in your mouth, we are doing an oral cancer screening.

Who gets oral cancer?

In the past, the picture of someone who got oral cancer was an older male who smokes and/or drinks alcohol.  However, the fastest growing group of oral cancer patients are non-smokers under the age of 50.  This shift is due to the changing causative factors of oral cancer. It is no longer just tobacco that cause cancer.  It is also a virus, the human papillomavirus version 16.

How does HPV16 cause cancer?

HPV16, has been found to cause oropharyngeal cancers (Oropharynx, base of tongue, tonsils).  HPV is a common, sexually transmitted virus, which infects about 40 million Americans. There are about 200 strains of HPV, most of which are harmless. Most Americans will have some version of HPV in their lifetimes, and even be exposed to the cancer-causing versions of it. Only about 1% of those infected will lack the immune response to the HPV16 strain.  To be clear: Infection with even a high risk HPV virus does not mean that you will develop cancer. Most people’s immune systems will clear the infection before a malignancy has the opportunity to occur.

Where does oral cancer occur?

Historically, with tobacco being a major cause of oral cancer, common sites included areas in the front of the mouth, such as the tongue, floor of the mouth, side the cheek, lower jaw, and lips.  More recently, with HPV16 related cancer, the oropharynx is the new hot spot.  The base of the tongue, back of the throat, and tonsils seem to be more affected in younger non-smoking individuals.

One of the real dangers of oral cancer is that it can often go unnoticed. It may be painless.  It may mimic the look of something simple like a cheek bite or a canker sore.   It is important to have any sore or discolored area, which does not heal within 14 days, looked at by your dentist.   Likewise, if you feel any lumps or bumps inside your mouth or neck, have any difficulty speaking or swallowing, or notice any hoarseness, talk to your doctor right away.

How to know for sure

If we notice a suspicious area, the only way to know for sure if it is something dangerous is to do a biopsy. This is painless, inexpensive, and takes little time. It is important to have a diagnosis as early as possible so that treatment can begin right away.

Contact us for an appointment at https://kalamazoodds.com