Oral Cancer Can Be Caught Before It Kills

Many don’t know they’re at risk, but having regular dental checkups is an important defense against oral cancer.

Oral cancer – cancer in the mouth, on the lips, or in the throat – is a complex disease, and many people don’t know they’re at risk for it, says Dr. Parish Sedghizadeh, a dentist at the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

“Oral cancer isn’t one of the most common cancers for people to get, but it is one of the deadliest cancers in the U.S.,” he says.

It’s so hard to live through oral cancer because it is usually found very late, Dr. Sedghizadeh explains. Treatment is also very tough on patients because surgery for oral cancer can disfigure the face, tongue, and neck as well as cause problems with daily activities such as eating, drinking, and speaking.

Where the cancer is depends a lot on what risk factors a person has, he says. Most oral cancers in the U.S. are found on the sides of and underneath the tongue and are connected to smoking or drinking alcohol. Cancers on the lip are usually connected to either smoking or lots of sun exposure, such as working outside without sun protection for many years. Cancers on the inside of the cheek are often tied to chewing tobacco.

Another risk for oral cancer that has been found recently is human papilloma virus, or HPV. HPV is spread through sexual activity, and scientists have already connected the virus to cervical cancer in women. Oral cancers tied to this very common virus often show up in the tonsils or elsewhere in the throat.

“The majority of oral cancer risk is still in people who have smoked or drank heavily for years, but HPV might be why we’re now seeing it in other people, especially younger women,” Dr. Seghizadeh says.

Dentists and dental hygienists can work with their patients to be the first line of defense against oral cancer, says USC dental hygienist Carlos Sanchez. Dentists and hygienists can check suspicious mouth lesions, sores, or unusual lumps that may become cancerous as part of a dental appointment, so having regular checkups is important. Patients can also look for early warning signs every day through self-examinations when they brush and floss their teeth, Sanchez adds.

“Patients know their bodies best,” he says. “If you have a sore that’s not been healing or swelling that hasn’t gone down, let your dentist, dental hygienist, or doctor know.”

Symptoms to look out for include:

-       Red or white sores or patches that aren’t healing (even if they don’t hurt)

-       Soreness or feeling like something is caught in the throat

-       Lumps in the mouth or neck that don’t go away

-       Trouble swallowing or talking

-       Pain in the mouth or ear

Dentists and hygienists can also offer patients advice on reducing oral cancer risks, including how to stop smoking. During this year’s Great American Smokeout, celebrated nationwide on Thursday, November 21, USC dental hygiene students and faculty will provide free oral cancer screenings and help with quitting smoking to the public from 10:30 AM to 3:00 PM at the USC Pharmacy, 3601 Trousdale Parkway, Suite 101, Los Angeles, CA 90089 and the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, 925 West 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90089. Both locations are on the USC campus.

The Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC offers low-cost dental care to children and adults. To learn more, please visit dentistry.usc.edu/patient-care or call (213) 740-2805.

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