In the United States, oral cancer is estimated to kill one person every hour, every day. While it accounts for a relatively small percentage of all cancers, oral cancer is dangerous because it isn’t usually detected until it has reached an advanced stage.
If there were a simple test that could give you an early warning about whether you’re likely to have this disease, would you take it? The good news is — there is! Since early detection has been shown to increase the survival rate of oral cancer to 80% or better, this test can truly save lives. Best of all, having an oral cancer screening is part of regular dental checkups.
The answer might surprise you. Oral cancer used to be thought of as an older person’s disease, and it still mostly affects those over 40. But today, younger people form the fastest-growing segment among oral cancer patients. This is primarily due to the spread of the sexually-transmitted Human Papilloma Virus (HPV16).
Of course, the other major risk factors still apply: If you’re middle aged or older, a moderate to heavy drinker or a long-time tobacco user, you have a greater chance of developing oral cancer. Chronic exposure to the sun, long known to cause skin cancer, is also associated with cancers of the lips. Genetic factors are thought to have a major impact on who gets the disease as well.
A thorough screening for oral cancer is part of your routine dental checkup — another reason for regular examinations. The screening includes a visual assessment of your lips, tongue and the inside of your mouth, including a check for red or white patches or unusual sores. You may be palpated (pressed with fingers) to detect the presence of lumps and swellings, and your tongue may be gently pulled aside for an even better view. A special light, dye or other procedure may also be used to help check any suspect areas. If anything appears to be out of the ordinary, a biopsy can be easily performed.
Remember, the only way to accurately diagnose oral cancer is through a laboratory report. Early diagnosis, aided by thorough screenings at your regular dental checkups, is one of the best defenses against oral cancer.
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