How Good Oral Health Can Protect You From Cancer

How Good Oral Health Can Protect You From Cancer

Maintaining a good oral health care routine can save your life. In addition to keeping your teeth and gums healthy, your oral health care routine can help prevent and detect oral cancer. Oral cancer can affect anyone, that’s why it’s so important to know the signs and symptoms, risk factors and steps to prevent oral cancer.

Every April, the dental professionals at OU Health and the OU College of Dentistry observe Oral Cancer Awareness Month by educating our community about the importance of early detection and prevention. Screenings, prevention and awareness can help save lives. Together, we can help Oklahomans stay healthy.

What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that starts when cells in the mouth or throat change, mutate or grow out of control. Oral cancer includes cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses and throat. These cancers account for roughly three percent of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States, or about 53,000 new cases each year. When caught early, oral cancer is much easier to treat and survival rates are higher.

What causes oral cancer?

While it’s not clear what causes the mutations in cells that lead to oral cancer, doctors have identified factors that may increase the risk of oral cancer. Tobacco and alcohol use are both risk factors, and when combined the risk significantly increases over just one risk factor alone. Here’s a quick list to help you identify your potential risk factors for oral cancer.

Risk factors for oral cancer

  • Tobacco – Cigarettes, cigars or pipe smoking, as well as smokeless tobacco use like dip, snuff or chewing tobacco, are one of the leading causes of oral cancer.
  • Alcohol – Excessive use of alcohol increases the risk of oral cancer six times over nondrinkers. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases your chances even more.
  • Excessive sun exposure – Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause lip cancers.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) – Certain HPV strains are risk factors for a type of oral cancer, Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma (OSCC).
  • Age – Most oral cancers are diagnosed in people 55 years and older.
  • Gender – Men are at least twice as likely as women to get oral cancer.
  • Poor diet – Studies show a link between oral cancer and a diet deficient in fruits and vegetables.

How does oral cancer affect your overall health?

A cancer diagnosis can affect more than just your physical body. In addition to physical changes and challenges, you may also experience social, emotional or mental difficulties. Oral cancer can make it difficult to eat and swallow which can lead to weight loss and nutrient deficiencies. Treatments may include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, which may result in facial changes that can affect speech or confidence.

The cancer experts at OU Health and oral healthcare professionals at the OU College of Dentistry have the knowledge and experience to guide you through an oral cancer diagnosis with comfort and compassion. Your overall health — physical, mental and emotional — is a top priority and will be supported every step of the way.

How you can check for oral cancer

As part of your oral health home care routine — which should include brushing and flossing twice daily — you can also perform a self-examination of your mouth including tongue, gums and cheeks for anything that appears to be abnormal. According to Kathleen Higgins, D.D.S., M.S., clinical assistant professor and oral pathologist at the OU College of Dentistry, oral cancers look like ulcers in the mouth and begin as pre-malignant lesions that are white or red in color. If you notice anything unusual or other symptoms, contact your doctor right away.

In addition, it’s important to maintain routine hygiene appointments with your dentist every six months. As part of your professional cleaning, your hygienist examines your mouth for any signs of oral cancer or changes in your oral cavity.

If your dentist or hygienist identifies a change or something that looks suspicious, they will refer you to an oral surgeon for a biopsy or an oral pathologist for an evaluation.

How to prevent oral cancer

Limiting tobacco and alcohol use is the number one way that you can reduce your risk for oral cancer states Ronald Faram, D.D.S., clinical assistant professor and oral pathologist at the OU College of Denitstry. He states that early detection of cancer is also important, so regular dental visits are extremely important. At every visit, your dentist will assess the tissues in your mouth and monitor for changes, which is a key step to the early detection of oral cancer. Early detection and diagnosis of cancer lead to a much better prognosis. These key lifestyle changes can help you prevent oral cancer.

6 steps to prevent oral cancer

  1. Maintain good oral hygiene – Brush and floss twice daily
  2. Maintain routine dental cleanings – Visit your hygienist for a professional cleaning every six months
  3. Quit tobacco products – Stop using cigarettes, cigars, dip, chewing tobacco and any type of tobacco
  4. Eat a healthy diet – Whole, nutrient-dense foods help your body function at its’ best
  5. Limit sun exposure – Wear sunscreen and hats that protect your face while in the sun
  6. Prevent Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) – Practice safe sex and get vaccinated for HPV