Oral Cancer Awareness Month is held every April to spotlight the risks posed by cancers of the mouth and pharynx, the back of the throat. Forms of oral cancer are highly treatable, but often diagnosed late. Read on to learn about risk factors and symptoms of oral cancer, as well as how quitting smoking and other lifestyle changes can prevent it.
The Facts About Oral Cancer
Oral cancer can include oral cavity cancer (which starts in the mouth) and pharyngeal cancer (which starts in the middle part of the throat known as the pharynx, visible when your mouth is open and right behind the oral cavity).
- Around 53,000 Americans develop oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer per year.
- Oral cavity and pharynx cancers make up 3 percent of U.S. cancers.
- Men are twice as likely to develop these cancers.
- Nearly 11,000 deaths occur from these cancers yearly.
- Nearly 385,000 Americans currently live with these cancers.
- The 5-year relative survival rate for these cancers is around 66 percent.
- Incidence rates for these cancers have increased regularly over the past decade.
These last two facts are concerning to doctors. Early signs of oral cancer often go unnoticed, harming survival rates, while incidence rates have increased due to increased prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV) related cancer. Understanding your risks and learning the symptoms of oral cancer are important aspects of keeping yourself safe.
Risk Factors and Symptoms of Oral Cancer
Risk Factors for oral and oropharyngeal cancers include:
- Tobacco use: Smoking significantly increases rates of oral cancers, as do oral tobacco products (snuff, spit, dip, chew, dissolvable tobacco), which are linked to oral cavity cancers.
- Drinking alcohol: Heavy or excessive alcohol use increases your risk even more than light drinking.
- Using alcohol and tobacco together: People who smoke and drink heavily are 30 times more likely to develop one of these cancers than someone who does neither.
- Certain types of HPV: Some HPV infections, especially HPV 16, are major causes of middle throat cancers.
- Ultraviolet (UV) light: Cancers of the lip are more common in people who have increased sun exposure from outdoor jobs.
- Gender: Men are twice as likely to develop these cancers.
- Excess body weight.
- Age: The average age of diagnosis with these cancers is 62, as they take a long time to develop. However, 20 to 25 percent of diagnoses are in people under 55, and these are typically linked to forms caused by HPV.
- Certain inherited genetic syndromes: Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita.
Oral cavity and pharyngeal cancers have no routine screening tests, so it's important to know their symptoms. These include:
- A sore in the mouth or on the lip that doesn't heal.
- Mouth pain that persists.
- A lump or thickening in the lips, mouth, or cheek.
- A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or mouth lining.
- A sore or irritated throat that doesn't go away.
- A lump or mass in the neck or back of the throat.
- Numbness in the tongue, lip, or any other area of the mouth.
- Jaw swelling or pain.
- Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue.
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing.
- Pain around the teeth.
- Loosening of the teeth.
- Unexplained changes in denture fit, or discomfort with dentures.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Voice changes.
- Ear pain.
Preventing Oral Cancer
You can reduce your risk of oral cavity and pharyngeal cancers through lifestyle changes and awareness of symptoms:
- Get the HPV vaccine: Oral sex with multiple partners can increase your risk of oral cancer caused by HPV.
- Limit sun exposure: Moderate the amount of time you spend outdoors in the middle of the day, and when you go outside wear sun-protective gear like wide-brimmed hats, sunscreen, and lip balm with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or above.
- Self-examinations: Examine your mouth in a mirror at least once a month for changes like white patches, sores, or lumps.
- Maintain a healthy diet and weight.
- Get regular dental checkups: Dentists are experienced at recognizing signs of oral cancer.
- Avoid or heavily reduce alcohol consumption.
- Quit smoking or other tobacco products: Quitting has many benefits even beyond avoiding oral cancer.
The Benefits of Quitting Smoking
Quitting smoking can seem trivial after years of damage from cigarettes, but no matter your age or how long you've smoked, it can help you. The longer you go without smoking, the stronger the benefits:
- 20 Minutes After Quitting: Your heart rate and blood pressure decrease.
- 12 Hours After Quitting: The carbon monoxide level in your blood returns to normal.
- 2 Weeks to 3 Months After Quitting: Lung function and circulation both improve.
- 1 to 9 Months After Quitting: A decrease in coughing and shortness of breath. The cilia in your lungs begin to function as normal, reducing the risk of infection and allowing you to breathe more easily.
- 1 Year After Quitting: Your heart attack risk drops, and your risk of coronary heart disease decreases to half of a current smoker's.
- 5 Years After Quitting: Your risks of certain cancers reduce by half, including those of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder. Your cervical cancer risk becomes that of a non-smoker. Your stroke risk can reduce to that of a non-smoker.
- 10 Years After Quitting: Your risk of lung cancer becomes half that of a current smoker. Your risk of cancer of the larynx and pancreas decrease.
- 15 Years After Quitting: Your risk of coronary heart disease reduces to that of a non-smoker's.
How to Quit Smoking Successfully
Everyone acknowledges that quitting is difficult. But there's a crucial thing you can do to help yourself before you even smoke your last cigarette: Make a Plan! Preparing for quitting can help give you guidance, and give the process a shape and structure so it seems less daunting. Here are some tips on how to do that:
- Establish a day to officially quit, and let your friends and family know. Emotional support is crucial.
- Set goals: what timeframe for reducing or eliminating cigarettes works for you? What does success mean for you specifically, and by how many months?
- Ask your friends and family to avoid smoking around you.
- Get rid of all cigarettes and paraphernalia, such as lighters and ashtrays.
- Stock up on oral substitutes to transfer your habit - sugarless gum, carrot sticks, toothpicks, coffee stirrers.
- Join a group support program such as Nicotine Anonymous.
- Research different types of counseling or therapies that may help:
- Consult your doctor about prescriptions that may help you reduce nicotine dependence, as well as alternative forms of nicotine to help you gradually lessen your intake.