Health Matters

Know Risks and Signs to Detect Oral Cancer Early

Apr. 17, 2015
Visiting your dentist regularly is about more than avoiding cavities or having beautiful teeth. It can also lower your risk for oral cancer and potentially help you avoid much larger problems down the road.
close-up of woman's mouth and teeth
It's Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month and Dr. Lee Pollan, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon with UR Medicine’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health, offers some tips on how you and your dentist can screen for any signs of cancer in your mouth.
Who’s at Risk?
Oral cancer kills one person every hour of each day. Risks are higher for males and for people who smoke or drink heavily. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is also known to cause oral cancer, especially in people under age 50. If more people get vaccinated, the number of HPV-related oral cancer cases should decrease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends boys and girls age 11 and 12 receive the vaccine so they are protected before being exposed to the virus, but older teens and young adults can get vaccinated, too.
While there are several types of oral cancer, squamous cell carcinoma is the most common, and it can appear on the surface of the lip, tongue, palate, throat, tonsils area, cheek or gum. Other types of oral cancer come from the salivary glands or the bone in the gum or jaw, and metastatic tumors from other parts of the body can spread to cause oral cancer. 
Screening for Signs
When you visit your dentist, he or she should provide a thorough oral exam and check hard and soft tissues of the oral cavity for cancer. If something appears out of the ordinary or if you are at a higher risk for developing oral cancer, your dentist may recommend additional testing. There are a few options, including imaging, endoscopy of the throat and biopsies. 
In between visits to your dentist, there are some signs you should watch for. If you have a sore in your mouth that does not heal normally within a week or two, or if you’re experiencing extended discomfort with some areas in your mouth (gums, lips, tongue), contact your dentist for an exam. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. 
If you are diagnosed with oral cancer, treatment involves a multidisciplinary approach that includes surgeons, radiation and chemotherapy oncologists, dental practitioners, nutritionists, and rehabilitative and restorative specialists. Treatment can have devastating effects. Part of the tongue, cheek or jaw may need to be removed. Also, radiation and chemotherapy can cause patients to lose the ability to create saliva, resulting in uncomfortable dry mouth, and many patients lose their taste buds, among other side effects of treatment.
Lee Pollan, DMD
Lee D. Pollan, DMD, MS, is a professor of clinical dentistry with UR Medicine and interim chair and residency program director of the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Department at Eastman Institute for Oral Health. He is a past president of the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons.