Oral cancer is a term that encompasses any cancer of the mouth, lips, throat, or gums, and is often first identified by a dentist by discoloration in the mouth, a growth inside the mouth or on the lips, or if you have loose teeth. Nearly 50 thousand people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, a frightening statistic for a cancer that is in large part, very preventable.
Preventing Oral Cancer
Oral cancers, like all other cancers are ultimately caused by mutations in the DNA of living cells. There’s nothing that can prevent that in today’s medicine, but outside factors that we introduce into our lives do contribute to our chances of developing oral cancers. A few major risk factors are:
Heavy alcohol intake
- Contracting human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Exposing your lips to excessive amounts of sunlight without protection
Studies found that people age 55 years and older were most at risk for oral cancers, and their chances increased the more risk factors they checked off. While no health professional can guarantee that you won’t develop oral cancer if you don’t smoke or drink excessively, choosing not to develop those habits and asking your dentist to perform an oral cancer screening during your visits will increase your chances of staying cancer-free.
Treating Oral Cancer
Treatment for oral cancers comes in several forms:
- Surgery can be used to remove tumors in the mouth, as well as lymph nodes in the neck if your doctor determines that the cancer has spread.
- Radiation therapy uses external beams of radiation to target cancer cells. It’s often used in the aftermath of surgery to ensure that any cells surrounding the area recently operated on are entirely clear of cancer, or as a complement to chemotherapy.
- Chemotherapy is the most well-known form of cancer treatment, involving one or more combinations of pharmaceuticals that attack cancer cells.
Each cancer treatment has side-effects, so when your doctor is working with you to determine the best form of treatment, be sure to ask them what to expect, so that you will know best how to manage them once therapy has begun.
Managing Your Life with Cancer
Learning you have cancer is terrifying, but modern medicine has the experts and the tools you need to fight it, and that’s a good place to start. Start researching your cancer and don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions about the treatments they are prescribing you. The more you know about your illness and the treatments you are going through to fight it, the less frightened you will be. Reach out to cancer survivors to learn their stories; you are going through a frightening time and spending time with people who understand what you are going through can make you feel less stressed, and may also give you some hope. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends and family. You need a support group during this time, and the people who care will help you.
If your family has a history of cancer, or you used to indulge in some of the high-risk activities that can cause oral cancer, don’t wait to ask your dentist for a cancer screening. Mouth sores that have bothered you for a long time, difficulty swallowing, or strange bumps in your mouth may all be signs of cancer and should not go undiagnosed.