When it comes to oral health, most of us are focused on avoiding cavities or banishing bad breath. We don't really think about taking steps to prevent mouth and throat cancers.
But according to Samer Al-Khudari, MD, we should. "Unfortunately, there is relatively low awareness about these cancers — including how to prevent and recognize them," says Al-Khudari, a head and neck surgeon at Rush University Medical Center.
Cancers of the oral cavity (including the lips, cheeks and tongue) and the oropharynx (including the soft palate, tonsils and throat) can crop up in a variety of ways and are not always easy to spot. "Symptoms vary by the type of cancer," Al-Khudari explains. "Not all patients have pain or irritation. Sometimes the symptoms are barely noticeable in the early stages."
That's a big reason why these cancers often go undiagnosed until the later stages, after they have spread to the lymph nodes
The good news is that even at the later stages, these cancers are still very treatable.
With current treatment advances, survival rates for oral cancers have improved over even a decade ago. In fact, some opharynx cancers have been found to have to survival rates of 80 to 90 percent at three years.
And many oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers can be prevented altogether with sensible self-care and healthy lifestyle choices.
Here, Al-Khudari offers five preventive tips:
The longer you've used tobacco and the more often you use it, the greater your risk of head and neck cancers.
"Both smoking and smokeless tobacco always play a direct role in causing these cancers," Al-Khudari says.
Chewing, smokeless and snuff tobaccos, which are placed directly in the mouth, can create gray-white ulcers called leukoplakia in the mouth that can become cancerous. Smokeless tobacco also contains chemicals known to damage a gene that protects against cancer.
As with smoking, the longer you use alcohol and the amount you drink, the more your risk goes up. That's because alcohol plays a role in changing the body's chemistry to break down its defenses against cancer.
People who have more than 3.5 alcoholic drinks per day increase their risk of oral cavity cancers two to three times, according to the National Institutes of Health. "You should definitely avoid excessive drinking," Al-Khudari affirms. "Alcohol dependence and binge drinking increase a person's risk. And excessive drinking and smoking combined has a multiplying effect."
Very often, dentists and dental hygienists are the first to notice potentially cancerous growths.
"Typically, they catch things really early during routine dental exams," Al-Khudari says. "They can then refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist. or a head and neck surgeon like myself. If we can confirm the diagnosis and start treatment right away, there's a good chance we can eliminate the cancer."
In addition to visiting the dentist every six months, be sure to brush and floss twice a day — and after meals — to keep your teeth and mouth healthy.
If you have a history of severe sunburns, take extra care with your lips. Just as skin can burn easily, the lips are also sensitive to the sun.
Human papilloma virus (HPV), particularly HPV16, is strongly associated with oropharyngeal cancers, especially those at the back of the mouth.
"Typically, HPV-related cancers are found in men in their late 40s or early 50s," Al-Khudari says. "They tend to have minimal symptoms, like a swelling in their neck that they discover while shaving that doesn’t go away."
The best way to prevent HPV is to get vaccinated before you become sexually active. With vaccines now available that protect against two strains of HPV — recommended for 11- to 26-year-olds — there is hope that the number of cases of these cancers will decrease over time as more people are vaccinated.
And because you can get HPV from a single sexual encounter, Al-Khudari also recommends practicing safe sex.
Lip cancer is directly related to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, and people who work outdoors and have prolonged exposure to the sun are more likely to develop lip cancer.
"If you have a history of severe sunburns, take extra care with your lips. Just as skin can burn easily, the lips are also sensitive to the sun," Al-Khudari says.
In addition to limiting sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., always wear a protective lip balm with SPF when you're outside, and reapply it after you eat or drink, or whenever you reapply sunscreen. Also, wear hats that shield your face from the sun.
In general, warning signs of mouth and throat cancers include the following:
If you experience any of these symptoms, Al-Khudari says, visit your primary care doctor as soon as possible. "If it is cancer, the earlier it's diagnosed, the better the chance we can successfully treat it."
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