Oral cancer can occur on your lips, inside your mouth, on the back of your throat, and in your tonsils and salivary glands. It occurs more frequently in men than women, and it is most likely to affect people over 40 years of age. Smoking or chewing tobacco, especially in combination with heavy alcohol use, is a key risk factor.
Understanding oral cancer
Like other cancers, oral cancer may require surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. If it’s allowed to grow undetected, it can be life-threatening.
Signs & symptoms
The link between smoking, lung cancer and heart disease is well established, but many Australians remain unaware of the link between smoking and oral cancer, as well as of oral cancer symptoms. For this reason, it often goes undetected.
Your dentist can refer you to an oral surgeon who can investigate whether you have oral cancer, but several early warning signs to look out for include:
- A sore on your lips, gums or the inside of your mouth that bleeds easily and doesn’t heal;
- A lump or thickening in your cheek;
- Loss of feeling or numbness in any part of your mouth;
- White or red patches on your gums, tongue, or the inside of your mouth;
- Difficulty with chewing or swallowing food;
- Soreness or unexplained pain in your mouth;
- The feeling that something is caught in your throat with no known cause;
- A swelling of your jaw, which may cause dentures or other appliances to fit poorly; and
- A change in your voice.
Following your diagnosis, a team of specialists — including an oral surgeon and a dentist — will develop an oral cancer treatment plan to fit your unique needs. Surgery is usually required and may be followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy.
Maintaining a complete daily oral care routine, healthy habits and a nutritious diet help to prevent oral cancer or complications after treatment. The following principles of daily oral care still apply:
Adults should brush their teeth, tongue and gums twice daily using a fluoride toothpaste, and drink water that contains fluoride.
Be sure to remove plaque between teeth by flossing every day. For good measure, you may also want to consider rinsing with an alcohol-free mouthwash.
Schedule regular, six-monthly visits with your dentist to monitor your oral health, and to look for early signs of tooth decay or gum disease and to identify changes to the soft tissues of your mouth that may need further investigation. If you don’t smoke tobacco, don’t start. If you do smoke, seek professional help if necessary to quit your habit. People who stop using tobacco, even after many years of use, greatly reduce their risk of oral cancer.
Tobacco users should limit their use of alcohol, too — together they create a toxic combination — and schedule regular, six-monthly visits with your dental professional. Early detection of oral cancer will make all the difference.