Maintaining proper hygiene and going to the dentist regularly are important ways to keep your teeth beautiful and healthy. Dr. Ashraf is committed to providing you with the knowledge to protect not only your oral health but your overall well being against the risks of oral cancer.
When you think about a trip to the dentist, you probably think of your routine cleanings and screenings for cavities. Most people don’t know that their dentist is also looking for other causes of concern.
Your dentist is checking to make sure that you don’t have any abnormalities on your mouth, tongue, or gums. He’s looking for sores or discoloration. You might already know what I’m getting at – your dentist is checking for oral cancer. As much as we don’t like to talk about the “C” word, it’s important that you know the facts.
Mouth cancer kills more people in a year than car crashes. Every 77 minutes a new person is told that they have oral cancer. With that being said, most people don’t even think about mouth cancer — nonetheless, know what causes it, the signs and symptoms, or how to prevent it.
Causes of Oral Cancer
There are a lot of misconceptions about what causes oral cancer. A lot of people erroneously believe that it’s caused by spicy food or obesity. In actuality, the primary cause of mouth cancer is tobacco use. Tobacco users are three times more likely to contract mouth cancer.
The carcinogens in tobacco cause abnormalities in your mouth’s DNA that lead to the spread of mouth cancer. Other common causes of oral cancer are chronic alcohol abuse, bad diet, the human papilloma virus, poor oral hygiene, and sun exposure. These factors can cause cancer, because they cause chronic inflammation which leads to mutations of DNA in the cells. When DNA in the cells become “broken,” they divide at a rapid rate, leading to cancer.
Signs of Oral Cancer
Oral cancer can appear and affect any part of your mouth or oral cavity, including: the outside of your lips, the lining of your lips and cheeks, teeth, the majority of your tongue, your gums, the floor of your mouth, and the roof of your mouth.
The cells that shield your mouth, tongue, and lips are called squamous cells. Typically, these are the cells where cancer begins. A spot on your tongue, gums, tonsils, or lining of your mouth could be a sign that something is wrong. Possible carcinomas on your mouth or lips start off as white or red. The squamous cells will look inflamed.
Oftentimes, oral cancer will present itself as a sore that doesn’t heal. It can be hard to differentiate a canker sore from a malignancy. Typically, a cancer sore is a painful white or greyish lump that goes away within two weeks. Sometimes people don’t realize they have oral cancer, because they excuse it as a canker sore. With that being said, if you experience a sore or lump in your mouth that lasts longer than three weeks, then you should have it evaluated by a doctor.
White or gray spots on your mouth or lips are called leukoplakia. These are usually caused by inflammations like smoking, improperly fitting dentures, or a chipped tooth. Chewing on the inside of your cheeks can also lead to leukoplakia. Usually, these spots gradually develop over weeks or months and end up harmless. However, they can become cancerous when left unchecked.
Patches that are a conglomeration of red and white colors in your mouth are called erythroleukoplakia. This abnormal cell growth is more likely to become cancerous than leukoplakia. If you experience these spots for over two weeks, the American Dental Association suggest that you get them checked immediately. In its earliest stage, cancer may not cause pain. The easiest way to combat oral cancer is through early detection.
Bright red patches or inflammations in your mouth are called erythroplakia. Beware of these patches, because between 75-90% of these spots are cancerous. With that being said, you shouldn’t ignore brightly colored areas in your mouth. If you’re experiencing erythroplakia, your dentists will most likely take a biopsy of the cells to determine their malignancy.
This change in cells typically begins under your tongue. You can screen yourself for oral cancer by looking at your mouth in the mirror under a bright light. You should check yourself at least once a month for changes in skin coloring. Gently pull your tongue out and look at the area underneath, the sides of your tongue, inside your cheeks, and under your lips.
It’s imperative that you see your dentist for regular exams, so that he can screen your mouth for sores and spots. The American Cancer Society recommends that everybody over the age of 20 has an oral cancer screening once every 3 years.
Preventing Oral Cancer
There are many ways to prevent oral cancer, but the easiest way is by cutting out risk factors. For one, you should avoid all tobacco products.
Snuff, chewing tobacco, cigars, and cigarettes are all correlated to higher rates or oral cancer. You should also limit alcohol consumption to one or two drinks a day or less. Alcohol causes inflammation in your mouth, which can lead to abnormal cell growth.
Another way to prevent oral cancer is by maintaining proper hygiene. Brushing and flossing regularly will help your body’s immune system fight off irregular cell growth. In the same vein, you can pick up healthy lifestyle habits that will promote healthy cell growth. Exercising regularly boosts your immune system, which is proven to defend against cancer.
You should eat foods that are full of antioxidants. Foods like dark leafy greens, flaxseed, garlic, berries, beans, cabbage, broccoli, and green tea are all important tools to stay healthy. The way you prepare your food also plays a role in the carcinogens you’re exposed to. When it comes to preparing your food baking, boiling, and steaming is healthier than frying and grilling.
If you have risk factors that make you susceptible to oral cancer (like excessive alcohol and tobacco use or HPV), then you should make sure that you ask Dr. Ashraf or dental hygienist to perform an oral cancer screen next time you’re come into our Waterloo-Kitchener office. Contact us today if you have any further questions or to schedule an appointment.