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Your Dentist Should Check for Oral Cancers

By Kathy Hubbard

“I was 22. I’d just graduated from college. I was involved with two internships, babysitting, dating a great guy, and enjoying the summer after four years of hard work,” Alyssa Fischer said on Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center’s website. She was just about to begin a master’s degree program in public communication when her future took a sudden, grim turn.

“I dropped quite a bit of weight without trying,” she said. “I’d wake up every morning with a migraine. My eyes burned. I had an extremely bad sore throat and constant earaches. And then a sore developed on the back of the right side of my tongue. I thought maybe I’d bitten it during the night.” However, the sore grew, and when the discomfort became nearly unbearable, she went to see her dentist.

Fischer was diagnosed with a large type of oral cancer on her tongue. The Oral Cancer Foundation says that although we think these cancers are rare, mouth cancers will be diagnosed in around 145 individuals each day in the U.S.

“And, a person dies from oral cancer every hour of every day. When found at the early stages of development, oral cancers can have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate. Unfortunately, at this time, the majority are found as late-stage cancers,” OCF says.

The American Dental Association explains that oral cancer is divided into two categories: those that occur in the lips, inside of your lips and cheeks, teeth, gums, the front two-thirds of your tongue and the floor and roof of your mouth, and those that occur in the middle region of the throat including your tonsils and base of your tongue (oropharynx). Cancer can appear in any of these areas.

I know I say this all the time, but I’ll say it again, early cancer detection is of utmost importance. This is your mouth we’re talking about. This is how you talk, eat, drink, sing and whistle. Fischer had to have more than half her tongue surgically removed. She had to relearn all those things. Treatment isn’t nearly that radical if the cancer is diagnosed early.

“It’s important to be aware of the following signs and symptoms and to see your dentist if they do not disappear after two weeks,” ADA says; “A sore or irritation that doesn’t go away; red or white patches; pain tenderness or numbness in mouth or lips; a lump, thickening, rough spot crust or small eroded area; difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue or jaw; a change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth.”

Fischer’s sore throat and earache are common. You may feel like something is caught in your throat. If you experience unexplained bleeding in the mouth, numbness, hoarseness, or a change in your voice, it’s time to see your dentist.

“Research has identified several factors that increase the risk of developing oral cancers. Men are twice more likely to get oral cancer than women. Smokers and excessive alcohol drinkers older than 50 are the most-at-risk,” ADA says. They also said that diet could play a significant role. People who ate an unhealthy diet had a much higher chance of developing oral cancers.

However, that said, there were many younger people with online stories about having oral cancers, most of whom said they neither drank nor smoked, and most said they felt their diet included sufficient fruits and vegetables. Why did they get cancer? They may have a family history of cancer or have been excessively exposed to the sun at a young age. Also, the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted, has been associated with throat cancers at the back of the mouth.

“HPV-positive head and neck cancers typically develop in the throat at the base of the tongue and in the folds of the tonsils, making them difficult to detect,” ADA says. “Regular dental check-ups that include an examination of the entire head and neck can be vital in detecting cancer early.”

Fischer went through a grueling nine-month recovery. In remission, she returned to university to achieve her master’s degree. Her thesis: The Power of Hope.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of the Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.

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