Each April we recognize Oral Cancer Awareness Month – a time to learn about this disease, support those with cancer, and advocate for a cure.

Every sixty minutes someone in the U.S. will die from oral and pharyngeal cancer. Of those newly diagnosed with oral cancer, nearly 40% will die within the first five years. And, those who do survive are often left with debilitating disfigurements and other long-term health concerns that can make even simple tasks like eating or speaking incredibly difficult. The death rate is relatively high for this type of cancer, mainly because it is often discovered late in its developmental stage – but with regular trips to the dentist and an ounce of self-prevention activities, most individuals can confidently assess whether or not they are at risk.

What causes oral cancer?

There is no simple answer to the question, “what causes cancer?” – just as there isn’t always a simple cure. But there are several contributing factors that can increase an individual’s probability of an oral cancer diagnosis, including these six:

  • Age: Just being older doesn’t mean you’re going to get cancer of the mouth or esophagus, but those diagnosed with oral cancer are typically over age 40.
  • HPV: Human papillomavirus (HPV) 16 is the number one cause of cancer of the throat and mouth. The scary figure? 75% of reproductive-age men and women in the U.S. have been infected with HPV.
  • Tobacco use: Whether the patient smokes cigarettes or cigars, or uses smokeless tobacco, each contributes to increased oral cancer risk. Smokeless tobacco is downright destructive to the mouth, esophagus, and throat.
  • Alcohol: Drinking excessively can cause a host of physical ailments, and combining it with consistent tobacco use can increase the risk or oral cancer in otherwise healthy people.
  • Diet: A diet lacking in fresh fruit, vegetables and nutrient-dense choices can contribute to a heightened risk of oral cancer.
  • The sun: Even if one is fanatical about sunscreen usage, not enough attention is paid to protecting the lips – and lip cancer is a real concern.

What are the main warning signs and oral cancer symptoms?

Let’s discuss some of the physical signs of oral cancer in most patients, but please don’t consider self-diagnosis as any substitute for regular, professional oral health screenings from a qualified dentist. Here are some of the warning signs you can look out for to ensure early detection of potential oral cancer:

  • Numbness: Any part of the mouth that feels and remains numb for any period of time should be considered a major red flag. Report your concerns to your dentist immediately.
  • Spots in your mouth: Red or white spots on the inside of your mouth – especially on your inner cheek (called the mucosal membrane), are cause for concern.
  • Ear pain: If you have pain in just one ear and your hearing is unaffected, this may be a sign that you have early onset of oral cancer. Have it checked out as soon as possible.
  • Unexplained oral sores: It is normal to occasionally get canker sores or other irritations in the mouth, but lumps, sores and other abnormalities should be infrequent.
  • Jaw mechanics: If your jaw isn’t operating as it normally does, or you find that normal tasks like chewing, swallowing and talking are becoming more difficult, have it looked at.

What are the treatment options?

Like most cancer types, the earlier it is detected and addressed, the higher the probability for a successful oral cancer treatment outcome. Oral cancer is generally treated by a combination of surgical procedures designed to physically remove all affected tissues, radiation treatment to kill any cancerous cells, and chemotherapy to deliver whole-body cancer treatment. Unfortunately, treatment can be quite invasive if the cancer is discovered late. Disfigurement and visible physical impairments can occur if the surgeon and oncologist feel that it is the only way to stop the cancer from spreading.

One easy way that people can minimize their risk of contracting oral cancer and the potentially damaging effects of the disease? Visit their dentist at least every six months. The dentist will conduct an oral examination with each routine visit, maximizing the chance of uncovering any potentially cancerous areas of the mouth early on.

Get involved this April – and support Oral Cancer Awareness Month

Keep these sobering statistics about oral cancer in mind as you consider ways to raise awareness of the disease, and advocate for a cure:

* This year, more than 35,000 men and 14,000 women will be diagnosed with oral cancer.

* Only about 30% of oral cancer patients discover the cancer early-on, and their 5-year survival rate is 83%.

* Of those who do not discover their oral cancer diagnosis in the early stages, the 5-year rate is just 60%.

* If the cancer is caught late enough that it has spread to other parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate is just 38%.

* The death rate for oral cancer is higher than that of cervical cancer, thyroid cancer, and Hodgkin’s disease.

* An estimated $3.2 billion is spent each year in the US alone treating oral and neck cancers.

This year, get involved in advocacy activities and ways to spotlight this disease, while also promoting healthy-living activities that can keep you as safe as possible. Here are some of the ways you can get involved:

Donate to the OCF: The Oral Cancer Foundation is a non-profit entity that was formed to provide advocacy and visibility around oral cancer prevention efforts, research, and patient support efforts. They do rely on donations, to some extent, so donating to this 501c3 charity can help the cause.

Compete in OCF events: The Oral Cancer Foundation holds numerous walk/run events around the country each year, with proceeds going to the research and support-based activities mentioned earlier. From Honolulu to Washington, D.C., and virtually anywhere in between, there is an event scheduled that can help raise money for this important cause.

Prioritize your own health: Make sure that you advocate for yourself and your family members by committing to regular dental check-ups at least every six months. This simple act can reduce your chance of an oral cancer diagnosis by encouraging frequent screening and early detection for you and your loved ones.

For more information about oral cancer awareness and prevention techniques, see your preferred dental professional soon. They’ll provide a thorough screening and deliver helpful answers to any questions you may have around this destructive disease.