By Dr. Charles E. Crutchfield III and David Hamlar, MD, DDS
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, someone dies from oral cancer every hour of every day in the United States alone. This serious mouth disease, which pertains to the mouth, lips or throat, is often highly curable if diagnosed and treated in the early stages.
What causes oral cancer?
Tobacco use is the number-one risk factor in oral cancer. Studies have shown that at least 75 percent of those diagnosed were either current or former tobacco users. Heavy use of alcohol among tobacco users has been proven to have a 15 percent greater risk of developing oral cancer than tobacco users that aren’t heavy alcohol users. Age and prolonged exposure to radiation or sunlight are contributing factors as well.
How common is oral cancer?
Over 300,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed every year worldwide.
How is oral cancer diagnosed?
Unfortunately, in its early stages, oral cancer can go unnoticed. Oral cancer could look like a common ulcer, cold sore, or a discoloration of tissue. Fortunately, your doctor or dentist can see or feel if a lesion looks cancerous. If you have any type of lesion in your mouth, or on your lips, that doesn’t heal within two weeks, or a difficulty in swallowing for a prolonged period of time, it is very important to see your doctor right away.
If your doctor does find a suspicious lesion in your mouth, he or she might remove it, but will most likely send you to a specialist for a removal and biopsy, which is a painless procedure.
Can oral cancer be prevented?
The best preventions of oral cancer are not to use tobacco of any kind and only drink alcohol in moderation. Avoid prolonged exposure to sun or use a sunscreen on your lips. Visit your doctor or dentist every six months for regular appointments.
When your doctor or dentist examines your mouth at your routine check-up, he or she is also screening you for oral cancer. This process only takes about 90 seconds and consists of a visual examination for any presence of cancer.
How is oral cancer treated?
If oral cancer is detected early enough, it could possibly be treated with surgery alone. Radiation combined with surgery would likely be used if the cancer is in its advanced stages.
What action steps can be taken now for anyone with (or who may develop) oral cancer to prevent, improve or treat it?
Although the number of deaths each year from oral cancer is astounding, it is highly curable if diagnosed early. Prevention is a key factor in oral cancer, and a 90-second doctor or dental examination could save your life.
Don’t smoke or chew tobacco. Minimize alcohol consumption.
Make sure your doctor or dentist performs an oral cancer screening for you at least once per year. If you notice a bump or ulcer or bleeding spot in your mouth that lasts more than 10 days, have it evaluated immediately.
David Hamlar. MD, DDS is an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Minnesota and can be reached at 612-625-9449.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African-American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.