Oral Cancer

July 28, 2023

By Dr. Stuart Fass

According to the National Cancer Institute, there will be 45,750 new cases and 8,650 deaths resulting from oral and pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer (OPC) in the United States this year. Historically, the death rate from OPC is high because it is typically diagnosed at a later stage. It’s not that it’s hard to see or find, but that many don’t see a dentist or physician routinely and have them do a head and neck cancer screening. Just over half of those diagnosed, about 57%, will be alive in 5 years.

Early cancer can go unnoticed. There is often no pain associated with it and symptoms might be very minor.  An ulcer that won’t heal, a white patch or a red area might be early signs. The good news is that a simple screening involving a thorough visual exam of all the soft tissues of the mouth and area surrounding it can be effective in early diagnosis leading to early effective treatment.

Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates there will be 450,000 new cases. This is just a rough estimate, but speaks of the enormity of the problem.

The human papilloma virus (HPV) has been shown to be a causative factor in oral cancer in younger people.  This sexually transmitted disease has been implicated in the increasing incidence of oral cancer in non-smoking young patients. One form may be replacing tobacco as the primary factor leading to OPC in people under 50. You might check with your physician on the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine for your child and consider immunization.

Dentistry is closely involved with promoting the prevention and early detection and treatment of OPC.  According to the American Cancer Society, one third of the more than 500,000 cancer deaths that occur each year can be attributed to diet and physical activity habits. So when you come in for your dental checkup, would you expect your regular examination to include a discussion about these areas? You should, since your dentist and hygienist and their staff are interested in the prevention of disease as a primary goal. The best treatment is to avoid the need for any treatment. It seems that the same dietary recommendations that we make for tooth and gum health go for overall health as well. A diet high in fruits, vegetables and plant based foods has been shown to help prevent many cancers, as well as restricting things such as sugary drinks and energy dense foods.

Along with diet, the need for regular exercise and weight control play an important role in health.  With proper care, the risk factors for cancer are lowered. Of course, the need for regular examinations and oral cancer screening should also be a part of the routine. Early detection of lesions has been shown to vastly improve the outcome of treatment. 

Your regular examination in our office will include a visual examination of the tongue, floor of the mouth, and all parts of the mouth and upper throat. Also, a manual exam of the loser jaw and floor of the mouth and throat will be done, feeling for any growths.  It’s another reason that you need to keep your regular appointments for recalls.

If at any time you notice a sore or ulcer in your mouth that hasn’t healed in a week or so, contact your dental office immediately.  The dentist will check the area and will take appropriate action which may include a brush biopsy or a referral to a specialist for more definitive diagnosis and treatment.

This article was published on 07-28-2023 in The Altamont Enterprise.