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Nearly 40,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). And although this figure may seem daunting, an oral cancer prognosis can still see great improvement with early detection and timely treatment.

Oral Cancer Early Detection

In fact, oral cancer that has remained local has a five-year survival rate of 83 per cent compared to 32 per cent for those whose condition has metastasized, spreading to other areas of the body. This is why recognizing the signs of oral cancer, having regular oral cancer screenings and receiving early treatment are all critical to a positive outcome.

See your dentist right away if you notice:

  • An unusual lump or thickening anywhere in your oral cavity.
  • A feeling that something is caught in your throat.
  • Sore throat, hoarseness or problems moving your jaw.
  • Numbness in your tongue or other areas of your mouth.
  • Swellings that make wearing your denture uncomfortable.

During a routine checkup, your dentist will do a visual examination of your oral cavity, tongue, lips, and face for signs of oral cancer. He or she will also palpate the neck and jaw area, feeling for any unusual lumps that can’t be seen with the naked eye. The American Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) suggests when cancer is suspected, you should be referred to an oral surgeon or oral pathologist for a biopsy. And if cancer is diagnosed, surgery followed by radiation or chemotherapy may be necessary.

Common Complications of Treatment

Those who undergo treatment for oral cancer often have dental hurdles to overcome as a result of the treatment itself. Swelling from the surgery may last for a few weeks, making the movement of the mouth difficult. The NIDCR also warns of oral side effects such as ulcerations that bleed easily and are prone to infection or dry mouth, both of which can lead to tooth decay or gum disease. Fungal infections occur at this time as well, due to the bacterial imbalance brought on by this care.

No matter what you experience, keep watch for when these conditions make eating, speaking and swallowing difficult, or cause changes in the way food tastes.

Minimizing Them

You can help minimize the risk and severity of your own oral complications, ultimately raising the chances of success in your cancer treatment, by following these steps:

  1. See your dentist before cancer treatment begins to manage any existing problems such as decay, gum disease or fractured teeth.
  2. Keep your mouth moist. Sip water throughout the day and suck on ice chips, sugar-free candies or gum – or try a saliva substitute.
  3. Brush with a new soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste after meals and before you go to bed. Floss gently every day, avoiding areas that are tender or bleeding, and use only an alcohol-free mouthwash.
  4. Follow your dentist’s instructions for using a supplemental fluoride.

Exercise your jaw muscles frequently, too, while avoiding spicy or acidic foods. And if you want to quit smoking, now is the time to start.

Reducing Your Risk

For smokers or those who use smokeless tobacco, the best way to reduce the risk of oral cancer is to kick the habit. According to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, 90 per cent of those who develop oral cancer are smokers. And keep in mind that both tobacco and excessive alcohol increase a person’s risk more so than using either substance alone. Another risk factor is age; oral cancer is more prevalent after 40. An infection with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) has also been connected to a subset of oral cancers. Cancer of the lip is another subset, and often the result of excessive sun exposure.

Although prevention is the best medicine, an oral cancer prognosis can prove optimistic when the disease is caught and treated early on. To out-smart it, understand the risks and make positive changes to your lifestyle while looking for signs and symptoms that your dentist should know about during that very important oral cancer screening.