April is Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness month. The Oral Cancer Foundation tells us that nearly 54,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year. Of the people newly diagnosed with these cancers, only about 57% will live longer than five years. Often, this type of cancer goes unnoticed by the patient until it has progressed to later stages. While smoking and alcohol consumption have long been known as risk factors, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancer among young non-smokers has steadily increased due to HPV16 — the same virus that causes more than 90% of all cervical cancers. In light of these findings, in 2019 the American Dental Association expanded their policy on early detection and prevention of oral cancer to include oropharyngeal cancer. The policy was broadened to cover all patients, not simply those at an increased risk due to tobacco and alcohol use. It also emphasized the vital role of the dentist in both educating and screening patients.
Oral Cancer Signs and Symptoms
The earliest signs of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer may be mistaken for other problems, such as a toothache or cold. If symptoms persist for several days or weeks, it is important for patients to see their doctor. Many of these symptoms can be due to other, less serious problems or other cancers. Signs and symptoms to watch for include:
- Unusual lumps or bumps in the mouth and wart-like masses and mouth sores that do not heal.
- Pain or difficulty swallowing or chewing.
- Unusual nosebleeds or other bleeding from the oral cavity.
- Distortion of any of the senses or numbness in the oral or facial areas.
- Sore throat, hoarseness or ear pain.
- Progressive swelling, enlarged lymph nodes, or shifting teeth.
Oral Cancer Screenings
We are pleased to offer oral cancer screenings at the vast majority of Mortenson Dental Partners practices. Many of our clinicians use VELscope, a non-invasive screening device that helps detect abnormalities that may not be visible with the naked eye. April is an ideal time to shed light on the importance of having screenings to detect oral cancer in its early stages. We will continue to do our part to educate our patients about the necessity of regular oral cancer screenings.