November is Mouth Cancer Action Month
A cancer diagnosis can be scary, no matter where it appears. While many people worry about breast, lung, pancreatic, or other types of cancer, they might overlook cancer in the mouth.
November is Mouth Cancer Action Month, a campaign started in the UK to promote awareness, prevention, and early detection. Mouth cancer is a significant health threat. The more you know about its causes and signs, the easier it will be to combat it.
The Significance of Mouth Cancer Action Month
Originating in the United Kingdom in 2000, Mouth Cancer Action Month provides an opportunity to raise awareness and encourage early screenings. Cancers affecting the tongue, lips, cheeks, and throat can be severe and life-threatening if not caught in their initial stages.
Although mouth cancer is more common in men over 40, it increasingly affects women and younger people. As the eleventh most common cancer, there are over 640,000 cases of mouth cancer worldwide. This year, there will be an estimated 52,000 new cases of mouth cancer and about 11,230 deaths in the U.S.
When accounting for the number of cases, mouth cancer is responsible for more deaths than melanomas or cervical and breast cancer. Even though it’s survivable (if detected early), this cancer can result in tooth loss, facial distortion, damage to the throat or tongue, and talking and eating difficulties.
Causes of Mouth Cancer
Alcohol and tobacco are the most significant contributors to mouth cancer. Although all types of tobacco use are harmful to oral health, chewing tobacco, in particular, increases the chance of mouth cancer. The combined use of tobacco and alcohol can intensify the risk.
Another cause is excessive exposure to sunlight, which can contribute to lip cancer. Using sun-blocking lip balm and not smoking can provide protection.
Some cases of mouth cancer are attributed to the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer but also spread through oral sex. More specifically, oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV is found in the back of the throat, the tonsils, and the base of the tongue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that HPV causes about 70% of all oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S.
Signs of Mouth Cancer
Not all mouth cancers look the same, but you can learn to identify common symptoms, such as a sore or ulcer that will not heal. Also, look for white or red patches, unexpected lumps in the mouth or jaw, or persistent hoarseness. If you spot any of these signs, follow up with your doctor or dentist, especially if they do not disappear within three weeks.
You can do a quick but thorough self-examination of your mouth to detect signs of cancer in the following areas:
- Cheeks: Look for white or red patches inside your cheeks as you pull them out. On the outside, roll each cheek with your thumb and forefinger to feel for any tenderness, lumps, or ulcers.
- Lips: In addition to looking under your lips for color changes or sores, use your thumb and index finger to check for bumps or any changes.
- Floor of mouth: Check underneath your tongue for unusual colors. Gently press your finger along the bottom and tongue to detect unusual textures, lumps, or sores.
- Roof of mouth: Tilt your head back in front of a mirror and open your mouth wide. Look to see if there are any unusual colors or ulcers. You can also gently feel for changes in texture with your finger.
- Tongue: In front of a mirror, stick out your tongue and check for any unexpected textures and colors. Pull out your tongue gently and roll it from side to side to get a good look. Also, touch the roof of your mouth of your tongue to inspect the underside. Again, look for any ulcers, swelling, or color changes.
With self-examinations and routine dental visits, you’re likely to detect early signs of mouth cancer, which increases your chances of a cure. Suppose you or your health provider find something out of the ordinary. In that case, you will typically get a referral to a specialist who will thoroughly examine your mouth and throat. They will also perform a biopsy, which involves taking a small sample of the abnormal tissue for further testing.
If the biopsy results in a cancer diagnosis, there will be more tests to determine the best course of treatment. These tests often include taking blood, performing an overall health check, or taking x-rays or scans. If the cancer is in an early stage, the likelihood of a cure is quite good, especially if the cancerous area is relatively small.
Treatments for mouth cancer vary depending on the location and stage. Most cancers in the mouth area get surgery along with radiation or combined radiation and chemotherapy. Patients with oropharyngeal cancers typically get both radiation and chemotherapy. Each cancer case is unique, and patients should discuss all their options with their providers, ask questions, and learn about the potential side effects of each treatment.
Healthy Habits Can Help Prevent Mouth Cancer
In most cases, mouth cancer prevention starts with good oral hygiene, including stopping smoking and moderating alcohol consumption. Other good habits include eating at least five servings of vegetables and fruit daily, which can guard against various types of cancer.
Preventing mouth cancer caused by HPV involves limiting the number of sexual partners and practicing safer sex. The proper use of condoms or dental dams can reduce HPV spread and decrease your risk of mouth cancer. Girls and boys aged 12-13 can also get the HPV vaccine, which can add more protection.
Regular dental check-ups can help detect signs of mouth cancer early. In-between dental visits, you can also make it a habit to check inside your mouth, under your jaw, and around the neck. If you notice an unusual lump, ulcer, sore that will not heal, or continued hoarseness, get it checked out by your dentist or doctor as soon as possible.
Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members.