There is a range of factors associated with oral cancer. But there’s also an elephant in the room: tobacco use is the leading cause of mouth cancer, and quitting is the best prevention tool we know. Your dentist is your first line of defense in helping prevent mouth cancer and also in early detection, one more reason that those twice-yearly check-ups are so essential. Remember, it isn’t just about your teeth: a healthy mouth goes way beyond preventing tooth decay.
What Is Mouth Cancer?
Oral cancer includes a number of types of cancers that affect multiple parts of the mouth and throat. These include cancers of:
- The oral cavity: this includes the front of the tongue, gums, lining of the cheeks, bottom and roof of the mouth
- The pharynx: the part of the throat just behind the nasal cavity and mouth
- The larynx or voice box
- One common type of mouth cancer, oropharyngeal cancer develops where the oral cavity meets the throat.
What Are the Risk Factors for Mouth Cancer?
While there are indications that some forms of mouth cancer are genetic, the National Cancer Institute has identified three main risk factors for oral cancer:
- Tobacco use is by far the leading cause of oral cancer.
- Heavy alcohol use
- Human papillomavirus or HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that has been linked to several types of cancer, including oropharyngeal cancer. According to NCI, around 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by the HPV virus, and studies show that the HPV vaccine can reduce high-risk HPV by nearly 90 percent.
Tobacco Use, Vaping and Mouth Cancer
Stopping tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco and vaping, is the best way to protect your oral health.
- Cigarettes and cigars: According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, a University of California study showed that more than eight out of ten oral cancer patients were smokers. And cigars, with their high concentrations of toxins, are especially dangerous for the mouth and throat, even if users don’t inhale.
- Smokeless tobacco or chewing tobacco: Because there’s no smoking involved, smokeless tobacco is often seen as safer than smoking, but this is not the case for oral cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of cancer to the cheek and gum for smokeless tobacco users is nearly 50 times greater than for non-users.
- Vaping: While sometimes presented as a healthier alternative to smoking, electronic cigarettes contain nicotine and chemicals including formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. Some of the flavorings in e-cigarettes have also been linked to cancer. A study released just this year by the International Association for Dental Research shows that e-cigarette users are exposed to levels of cancer-causing chemicals that are as high or higher than smokers.
How Can I Prevent Mouth Cancer?
Healthy lifestyle choices and regular dental check-ups are the best ways to prevent mouth cancer. You can do to help prevent oral cancer
- Stop tobacco use, including vaping and smokeless tobacco
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Vaccinate tweens and teens against HPV.
- Eat healthy: a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps with overall oral health, including preventing mouth cancer.
- Get regular dental check-ups starting in early childhood. Your dentist has the tools and training to screen for mouth cancer as well as keeping teeth and gums healthy.
How Can I Spot Mouth Cancer?
Checking for oral cancer is part of your routine dental check-ups. It’s something that dentists care deeply about and are trained to detect. Your dentist not only checks your teeth but also examines your gums, lips and mouth cavity to look for early warning signs. Here are some of the signs of mouth cancer, according to the American Dental Association.
- Sores that don’t heal
- Red or white patches
- Thick or hard spot or lump
- Rough or crusted area
The ADA also recommends talking to your dentist if you have trouble speaking, swallowing or moving your jaw. Your dentist can’t diagnose mouth cancer but is one of your first lines of defense and can refer potential problems for further testing.
How Can I Treat Mouth Cancer?
As with most forms of cancer, early detection is key to successful treatment. That’s one reason regular dental check-ups are so important. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, a multifaceted approach is usually the most successful. Treatment often involves surgery and radiation along with chemotherapy in some cases to prevent metastasis. Your dentist also plays a role in helping beat mouth cancer. A good dental cleaning is often recommended before treatment begins. And in many cases, patients need to have other dental issues taken care of by their dentist including pulling teeth damaged by decay or gum disease, according to the OCF. Patients may also need their dentist’s help in creating oral prostheses after treatment for mouth cancer.
Your Dentist Is Your Partner In Preventing and Detecting Mouth Cancer
Oral cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer with a few simple lifestyle choices. Quitting or avoiding tobacco use is one of the most important things you can do for your overall mouth health and oral cancer prevention. Regular screenings for oral cancer are also key and are a part of every dental exam at Greenhill Dental.
Our doctors and staff are trained in spotting the early warning signs of oral cancer and can give you a referral in the case of any warning signs. We are also here to help you with smoking and tobacco cessation and can recommend products and therapies to help you break the habit and get you on the path to excellent oral and overall health.