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Oral cancer can kill, like any other cancer. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, in 2013, 42,000 people in the US will be diagnosed with oral cancer. Oral cancer patients have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate, if the cancer is found and treated in the early stages. If the cancer is undiagnosed until it reached late stage three or stage four, the possibility of dying is greatly increased. Eight-thousand people per year will die from oral cancer. One of the reasons for the death rate being so high is that by the time the oral cancer is found it has metastasized to the lymph nodes.

Oral cancer is associated with tobacco and alcohol use, but there are many cases of oral cancer where the patient never used either of these products. The use of tobacco and alcohol does increase the risk of oral cancer and for that reason, they should be avoided. At least 25 percent of oral cancers are found in people who do not smoke or drink. Cancer on the lips is very common with sun exposure.

Common Signs of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is an uncontrollable growth where the cancerous cells invade surrounding tissue. It can be found in the mouth on the cheeks or palate. It can be on the tongue, lips or in the throat. It can grow in the sinuses, as well. Here are some of the common symptoms of oral cancer:

  • Many times, it begins as a small sore or growth that never goes away or appears to heal only to return.
  • Swellings, lumps, or bumps on lips, gums or inside the mouth
  • Patches of white, red or speckled skin in the mouth
  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • Numbness or pain in any area of the face, mouth, or neck
  • Persistent sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed and do not heal
  • Feeling of something caught in the back of the throat or chronic sore throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Ear pain

Anything that is unusual or any place that does not heal promptly should be examined by a dentist or health care professional. Caught early all oral cancers are survivable.

Do Dentists Look for Cancer?

Dentists do look for cancer as part of any routine dental examination. They can take skin samples, with a brush, if an area looks suspicious and have it tested for cell growth. If they find something larger or more obvious, they can remove it for a biopsy or send the patient to a specialist. It is very important to detect all cancer early for the best chance of stopping the progression.

Treatment for Oral Cancer

Treatment of oral cancer can be varied depending on the area of the cancer and whether it has metastasized. Some cancers can be treated with a chemotherapy topical cream. Other cancerous growths are simply surgically removed. More advanced or complex cancers require radiation and/or chemotherapy.

If the cancer has spread into the jawbone, some or all of it may have to be removed (mandibular resection). Removal of the roof of the mouth, or hard palate (maxillectomy) is needed if that is the location of the cancerous tumor. If the cancer is in the hard palate, it may have also spread into the sinuses. Removal of the tongue (glossectomy) might also be necessary. The doctor will determine if part or all of the tongue must be removed. In cases of throat cancer, all or part of the voicebox (larynx) might have to be removed with the tumor.

In addition to stopping the growth of cancer early to avoid a potentially life-threatening situation, oral cancer, when caught early, can result in very little disfigurement. Some patients with advanced oral cancers have benefitted from reconstructive surgery to assist them in eating, breathing, and speaking. Advanced oral cancers can leave the patient badly scarred and deformed.

Surgeons can do reconstructive operations using skin and bone grafts from other parts of the body to help the patient as much as possible. It takes a highly trained surgeon to do reconstructive work, which requires attaching tiny blood vessels, bone, and skin to recreate a human face.

Many times some or all of the teeth need to be removed and replaced with either implants or dentures. A cosmetic or restorative dentist can determine which type of replacement is best, as every situation is different.

Speech therapy and swallowing therapy is also needed in some cases. After being treated for cancer, proper nutrition is very important. If the mouth and throat were badly impaired by the cancer, it might be difficult for the patient to eat. Swallowing can be difficult and dangerous if food goes down into the lungs, aspiration, which can lead to pneumonia. It is also difficult for the patient to be in social situations where eating can cause coughing and choking. In some cases, the removal of cancer and the surrounding tissue is so severe that the patient is left unable to eat, chew, or swallow. In these cases, the patient is kept alive and given nutrition through a feeding tube inserted into the stomach.

How to Prevent Oral Cancer

Not every type of cancer is preventable, but there are ways to reduce the risk of contracting it and having it diagnosed and treated quickly will greatly reduce the amount of damage the cancerous tumor can do and the amount of tissue it affects.

Do a self-exam at least once a month. Using a light and a mirror, look into the mouth and examine the teeth, gums, roof of the mouth and the throat as much as possible. Look for any unusual change in color or texture of the skin. Feel for any new lumps or bumps. Call a dentist to schedule an appointment right away is there are any changes.

See a dentist regularly, it is recommended twice a year. If there is a history of cancer, or any tobacco use, see the dentist more often and make sure he or she knows to do a thorough cancer examination.

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