The American Cancer Society reports more than 50,000 new cases of oral cancer each year. One in five of these people will lose their lives to the disease. Many people are unaware that there are everyday choices they make that make them more prone to developing oral cancer.
What Causes Oral Cancer?
Cancer of the oral cavity happens when cells develop mutations. These mutations in the DNA allow cells to continue growing and dividing when they would normally die. These cancerous cells accumulate into a tumor that can spread to other areas of your body. Modern medicine has not yet determined precisely why these mutations occur, but it has identified correlations with:
- Tobacco use
- Immune system disorders
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Human papillomavirus infection
- Too much sun exposure to the lips
Note that oral cancer does not necessarily require a recognizable risk factor in order to happen. Early diagnosis of oral cancer is another excellent reason to visit your dentist on a regular basis.
Indications of Oral Cancer
Signs that could potentially indicate oral cancer include:
- Loose teeth
- Tongue pain
- Oral sores that bleed
- Oral sores that do not heal
- Thickening of the mouth lining
- Unexplained throat soreness
- Dentures that no longer fit well
- Stiffness, discomfort, or pain in the jaw
- Discomfort or pain when chewing or swallowing
A sore or lesion is not necessarily cancerous, and it may be difficult to determine. In many cases, your dentist will have to refer you to have a biopsy of the affected area performed.
How to Avoid Oral Cancer
There is no surefire way to prevent oral cancer. There are, however, lifestyle choices that you can make that can significantly lessen how prone you are to the disease.
- Eat Ample Fruits and Vegetables – This is good diet advice in general. Eating vegetables or fruits with each meal, as well as choosing fruits and vegetables as snacks, help to balance your diet. An unbalanced diet leads to malnutrition, which causes changes in your mouth and other parts of your body that make you more prone to cancer. The vitamins and antioxidants that you get from vegetables and fruits let your immune system operate at maximum efficiency. In order to achieve this, it is recommended that you have at least five servings a day and that you make varied choices rather than eat the same particular vegetables all the time. Options that are particularly good for oral health include brussels sprouts, carrots, and squash.
- Avoid Cooking Those Nutrients Away – The more you cook vegetables, the less beneficial they are. Raw vegetables are the best, which makes them a great option for snacking. A healthy salad is always an excellent meal option. For warm vegetables, you want to steam them just enough for the warmth you desire. Preserve the crunch. Preserve the nutrients. Other cooking options will cause more nutrient loss, and it is best to avoid cooking oils as much as possible since these can lead to cancer-causing agents at high heat levels.
- Use Sun Protection – The average adult does not wear enough sun protection. Overexposure puts you at risk of skin cancer as well as lip cancer. Avoid sun exposure in the middle of the day. Heed local ozone alert warnings. Do not tan in tanning beds. When you do enjoy the sun, use a sunscreen and lip balm rated for SPF 15 or higher, and wear a wide-brimmed hat that provides shade for your entire face.
- Limit Your Alcohol Consumption – No amount of alcohol consumption is healthy. Moderate alcohol consumption is considered one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. If you drink three or more drinks a day, it irritates your mouth to the point that you are at least twice as prone to oral cancer as compared to a non-drinker.
- Reduce your HPV exposure – Human papillomavirus is a common viral infection. Many people have it without even knowing about it because it does not manifest symptoms in most people. In some cases, however, it initiates changes that lead to cancer. There is an HPV vaccine, but it is most effective if you are vaccinated prior to becoming sexually active. Those who are already active should practice safe sex and limit their partners.
- Avoid Tobacco Use – The use of tobacco puts you at risk of oral cancer and many other types of cancer. Even smoking once puts you at risk, and the more you use and the more consistently you use, that risk goes up and up and up. Even if you are a longtime smoker, quitting today puts you at much less risk tomorrow. In the event you do get cancer, quitting—even if you quit when diagnosed—will make treatments more effective, and if the cancer goes into remission, it makes recurrence much less likely. This advice is not limited to cigarettes. All tobacco is equally dangerous: cigars, pipes, dip, chew, snuff, and so on.
- Avoid Secondhand Smoke – There are excellent reasons why 28 states—including Arizona—have secondhand smoke laws and that the American Lung Association is lobbying for laws in all 50 plus D.C. You do not need to choose to smoke to be affected by it. Spending time near smokers increases your oral cancer risk. There is no safe level of secondhand smoke, and the longer you are around it, the greater your risk becomes.
- Avoid Chewing Betel Quid and Areca Nut – Many Americans may not know what this is. It is particularly popular in Southeast Asia. Betel quid is a mixture of areca nut, betel leaf, and slaked lime. It is sometimes mixed with tobacco. Despite not being native to North America, its prevalence is on the rise in metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has even recognized it as an emerging health threat and has instructed U.S. Customs officers to detain it automatically if they detect it, but detection is difficult. Even without tobacco mixed in, betel quid has been linked to oral cancer and should be avoided.
- See Your Dentist on a Regular Basis – A common mistake people make is to visit their dentists only when there is a problem. But your teeth and gums can be experiencing problems before symptoms manifest, and your dentist can be critical to the early detection of oral cancer and other health complications. The American Dental Association recommends an annual visit at the minimum. Most dental professionals recommend biannual visits, and if you have gum disease or another dental issue, your dentist may recommend more frequent visits.
- Perform Self-Examinations – In between those dental visits, you should perform a self-examination of your mouth at least once a month. In a mirror, look for ulcers, redness, white patches, or anything else that seems unusual. Inspect your teeth, gums, tongue, mouth roof, and all soft tissues. Minor issues should heal within three weeks. If an issue persists or is moderate to severe, schedule a dental appointment right away.
Here are answers to some common questions concerning oral cancer:
- Do dentures lead to oral cancer? Some dental professionals theorize that ill-fitting dentures—as well as sharp and crooked teeth—can irritate your mouth and that irritation may be an oral cancer risk factor. There is no clear evidence supporting this, and statistically, people with dentures are at no higher risk of oral cancer than anyone else. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to ensure that your dentures fit well at all times.
- Does brushing and flossing help avoid oral cancer? The ADA recommends that you brush twice a day and floss once a day. Doing so will help to avoid the plaque that leads to gum disease, tooth decay, and so forth. While there is no direct link between these activities and avoiding oral cancer, a healthier mouth certainly makes you less prone to disease. In addition, at least one notable study has linked poor oral health to a higher prevalence of HPV.
- Can mouthwash cause oral cancer? Science is not sure yet, but more than one study has demonstrated a link between alcohol-based mouth rinses and oral cancer. But such research is complicated by the fact that people who smoke and drink tend to use mouthwash more often than the average person. The ADA does recommend the daily use of a therapeutic mouthwash, and you should choose a product that has the ADA Seal of Acceptance.
- Should you get screened for oral cancer? Yes, but according to the ADA, oral cancer screening is part of regular dental cleaning. Therefore, if you get your teeth checked and cleaned every six months, you get screened! In fact, you increase the likelihood of early detection by a great deal, and when detected early, oral cancer is highly treatable. When detected late, it can lead to serious health complications and even require facial surgeries.
Get Screened for Oral Cancer
Jeffrey D. Clark, DDS, is a leading dentist who embraces continuing education and the latest technologies and techniques. Dr. Clark conducts oral cancer screening as part of each regular checkup he performs. That screening includes an extraoral examination of the head and neck as well as an intraoral examination: lips, tongue, gum tissues, cheeks, palate, and so forth. Safeguard yourself from oral cancer and schedule your appointment with Dr. Clark today. Call Scottsdale Dental Excellence at 480 585 1853.