April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month.
Regular dental checkup is the first line of defense in early detection of oral cancer.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), oral cancer ranks eighth among the most common cancer worldwide. Globally, more than 300,000 new cases of lip and oral cavity cancer were estimated to have been diagnosed in 2012.
In the United States, oral and pharyngeal cancer (cancer of the mouth and upper throat) collectively kills nearly one person every hour.
In the Middle East, a multicenter, retrospective study on oral cancer finds that the death rate due to oral cancer in the Middle East is reported to be approximately 2 in 100,000.
Dr. Marwan Al-Obeidi, Clinical Head at Dr. Michael’s Dental Clinics talks about the disease and the role of dentists in its early detection.
What is oral cancer?
Oral Cancers are a part of a group of cancers commonly referred to as head and neck cancers. Oral cancer can affect any part of the oral cavity, particularly the tongue, floor of the mouth, the cheeks, bones, and lips. It is among the most prevalent cancers in the world and its incidence is increasing every year. The prevalence of this cancer is higher in males than females.
What are the causes of oral cancer?
There appears to be a direct link between oral cancer and well-defined predisposing factors. These factors are mainly tobacco smoking and smokeless tobacco (chewing) and alcohol. In fact, the WHO reports that tobacco use (smoking or chewing) and excessive alcohol consumption account for an estimated 90% of oral cancers worldwide.
Exposure of the lip to direct sunlight also accounts for a very high rate of lip cancers in countries with a population exposed to high amounts of direct sunlight such as Australia and indeed the Middle East.
Other risk factors include genetics and a certain group of viruses known as HPV (Human papillomavirus).
What are the warning signs of oral cancer?
Oral cancer can present itself in many ways and is usually pain free at the early stages. It can present as simple swellings or lumps or even a patch on the oral mucosa (soft tissues) which can appear as just a redness or even a simple ulcer which doesn't heal. Other signs to look out for are a change in the hoarseness of the voice or difficulty in swallowing and movement of the tongue can be found to be constricted. All of the above can usually be accompanied by a dramatic decrease in weight over a relatively short period of time.
What is the role of dentists in oral cancer detection?
Our role as dentists is vital in early detection of oral cancers as early detection has been proven to dramatically increase the chances of successful treatment and survival rates for patients. We are also working very hard as a group of professionals to educate the population on the risks of predisposing factors and trying to raise awareness about this ever growing threat to our health.
It is very important that our patients are aware of any predisposing factors that can affect their health and we are continually trying to reduce the exposure to these factors.
Alongside health promotion, we also have a duty to carefully examine the whole oral cavity during each checkup appointment. As dentists, we are uniquely placed in a privileged position to be able to see most of our patients every 6 months for routine dental examinations. It is at these examinations that a general oral cancer screen is carried out where not only do we discuss any predisposing factors but we also actively screen for any abnormal lesions in the mouth.
How is oral cancer detection done during dental checkups?
As part of your routine dental exam, your dentist will feel for any lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, face, and oral cavity. When examining your mouth, your dentist will look for any sores or discolored tissue as well as check for any signs and symptoms mentioned above.
Your dentist may perform a biopsy if he or she sees tissue in your mouth that looks suspicious. This test is painless and involves taking a small sample of the tissue, and analyzing it for abnormal cells. Alternatively, if the tissue looks more suspicious, your dentist may recommend a referral to a more experienced specialist colleague who will carry out further tests if necessary. These tests are vital to detect oral cancer early, before it has had a chance to progress and spread.
Importance of regular dental visits
It is very important to regularly visit your dentist even if you are not experiencing any symptoms as oral cancer often remains pain-free for several months and the patient is usually unaware of any abnormalities.
On your appointment, you should inform your dentist of all habits that could be predisposing to cancerous lesions such as tobacco use and alcohol consumption and any other medical conditions you may have. It is also important to inform your patient of any family history of cancer. The dentist will give you advice regarding these factors before carrying out a detailed examination of your oral cavity to ensure that no lesions or abnormalities are seen.
Remember, early detection is critical for successful treatment so if you haven't seen your dentist for a while, book a checkup appointment now and make sure that not only your teeth are healthy but your whole mouth is disease free!
- Oral cancer in the UAE: a multicenter, retrospective study
- American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons | Raise Oral Cancer Awareness
- Oral Cancer Foundation
- Petersen PE, Oral cancer prevention and control – Oral cancer prevention and control – The approach of the World Health Organization, Oral Oncol (2008), doi:10.1016/j.oraloncology.2008.05.023