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A Guide to Oral Cancer

Dentist Checking Patient's Teeth
Cancer, the big, bad word that makes everyone cringe. When most people think of cancer, they think of breast cancer, lung cancer, and perhaps prostate cancer — largely because these cancers are serious and garner a lot of media attention. Yet, there's another type of cancer that does not always get as much exposure as it should: oral cancer.
Cancers of the mouth and throat are often deadly, especially when they are not caught early. Below, you will find the basic information that everyone should know about oral cancer.
1. Early Signs Are Easily Overlooked
As with many types of cancer, early diagnosis is the key to successful treatment. However, oral cancer is sometimes overlooked in the early stages because the early symptoms are so mild. Patients may notice lumps or thick patches on their cheeks or tongues, lingering throat soreness, red lesions in the mouth, and pain in one of the ears without hearing loss.
These early symptoms are easily dismissed as those of a cold, but if they last more than a few days, you should see a healthcare professional to rule out oral cancer.
2. Dentists Check for Cancer
If you're like most patients, you may have wondered why your dentist insists on seeing you for checkups every six months, even though you have not had a cavity for years. Your dentist does more than check for cavities during an oral exam. He or she also looks for signs of oral cancer. These exams are vitally important because early signs of oral cancer are often more obvious to your dentist than they are to you.
If your dentist notices a worrisome lesion or another symptom of oral cancer during your visit, he or she will refer you to a specialist. Oral cancer can progress quickly, so attend your twice-yearly dental exams as scheduled.
3. Several Types of Oral Cancer Exist
Patients sometimes overlook signs of oral cancer because their symptoms are not the same as those of a friend or family member who was diagnosed. However, there are several types of oral cancer, and each has somewhat different signs and symptoms. The following are a few of the more common types:
  • Squamous cell carcinoma affects the cells that line your mouth and is the most common oral cancer.
  • Lymphoma develops in the lymph glands, such as your tonsils or salivary glands.
  • Verrucous carcinoma is a slow-growing form of cancer that affects the squamous cells.
Other types of oral cancer include papilloma, lipomas, fibromas, and granular cell tumors. The number of types is another reason to talk to a dentist who can detect signs of problems.
4. More Than 50,000 People Will Develop Oral Cancer in 2018
This estimate comes from the American Cancer Society and includes cancers of the pharynx, or throat. Oral cancer is not uncommon, so remain on the lookout for symptoms. Men are more likely to get oral cancer than women, and your risk increases with age.
5. Non-Smokers Are Still At Risk
Dentists and other health care professionals often hear people say they won't get cancer because they don't smoke. Oral cancer is most common in smokers, but many non-smokers develop the condition too. Some people are genetically predisposed to certain oral cancers. Exposure to UV light, alcohol use, exposure to the human papillomavirus, and immune suppression drugs also increase your risk. 
Now that you know a little more about oral cancer, take action to protect yourself. Schedule a checkup with Vicki Vida Kestler, DDS. We'll check your teeth for cavities and other problems, and we'll also screen you for oral cancer to ensure any lesions are detected as early as possible.