Guest Blog by Dr. Kurt Petellin, DDS
April is Oral Cancer Awareness month. With everything going on in the world, do we need an entire month dedicated to oral cancer awareness? Yes. Even though more than 10,000 people die each year from oral cancer, it is one of the most preventable cancers. Yes, preventable. But let me explain that term just a bit. More often than not cancer, in all of its forms, is genetic in nature and not necessarily something we have any control over. Research has shown however, that certain lifestyle choices significantly increase the probability of developing oral cancer. And making the decision to partake of these lifestyle choices is something you do have control over.
Some major risk factors that may increase oral cancer include tobacco use (any kind of tobacco), excessive alcohol consumption, and the human papillomavirus (HPV), among others. The chemicals found in tobacco products, called carcinogens, damage the cells in your mouth. Those damaged cells may become cancerous; around 75% of oral cancer patients are tobacco users. Alcohol can make the cells in your mouth more susceptible to change – which can lead to cancer (particularly if you’re a tobacco user as well). HPV viruses cause warts, but up to 30% of all oral cancers are linked with an HPV infection.
What are some symptoms of oral cancer? Lumps inside the mouth, loose teeth, and difficulty chewing or swallowing are symptoms to be aware of, especially if these arise without explanation, such as with an injury. White patches or red lesions inside your mouth are other noticeable indications of oral cancer. If you have any of these symptoms it doesn’t mean you have oral cancer, but be sure to bring them to your dentist’s attention. If you see your dentist regularly (at least twice a year) they have a record of your oral health and will be able to quickly recognize any concerning changes, recommend treatment, or refer you to a specialist if necessary.
I know that changing a habit is often easier said than done. Talk to your dentist about getting help to quit smoking, try to drink less, and the easy one, get you and your children immunized against HPV. Oral cancer will change your life, and not for the better. Don’t be afraid to talk to your dentist about any symptoms or concerns you have, and ask them to perform an oral risk screening at each visit.
Dr. Kurt Petellin, DDS, is a board member of Delta Dental of Idaho, and provides a wide range of care and services at his practice, Petellin Family Dental, in Coeur d’ Alene.