While oral cancer makes up only a small portion of annual cancer cases, they are nonetheless a critical situation for those patients who develop them. Because cancer lesions in the mouth are easily mistaken for other kinds of sores or overlooked as they develop, they're often not detected until the later stages of the disease. The lack of early detection is a major factor in a dismal overall survival rate for oral cancer of 58%, five years after treatment. On the other hand, oral cancer diagnosed in earlier stages of development boast a much improved survival rate — up to 80% after five years.
The most important factor for early detection is your own observations while performing oral hygiene. A lesion can occur anywhere in the oral cavity (the mouth) or the pharynx (back of the mouth and throat). Of particular concern are abnormalities that appear on the lips and on or around the tongue. These abnormalities may first look like cold or canker sores, ulcers or white patches. If they don't begin to diminish in a few days, then you should certainly contact our office for an oral cancer exam (this exam is also part of your routine office visit).
While there are a number of diagnostic screening tests, the best method for achieving an accurate diagnosis is a biopsy. We would remove a small sample of the abnormal tissue (if the area is large enough to begin with) and have it analyzed microscopically. If the abnormality is small, the complete abnormality would be removed so that if it was determined to be benign or in a pre-cancerous stage, we would have already treated your condition by removing the abnormal tissue. If, however, the sample returns positive for cancer and we were unable to remove it totally during the biopsy, then a course of treatment must be developed utilizing other specialists in dental and medical oncology.
You should also be aware that there are actions you can take to reduce your risk of developing oral cancer in the first place: protect yourself from too much sun exposure; moderate your intake of alcoholic beverages; refrain from any tobacco use (smoking and smokeless) or risky sexual activity; and eat a plant-based, whole food diet. These actions coupled with vigilance for early detection can make a difference in your oral health — it may even save your life.
If you would like more information on oral cancer, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Oral Cancer.”