Medical group encourages oral cancer awareness

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo -- Oral cancer is a member of the head and neck cancer family. It is estimated that approximately 34,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or throat cancer and 8,000 will die from head or neck cancer this year, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. 

The main reason for the high number of oral cancer deaths is that it is hard to detect, it is usually painless in the beginning stages and often goes undiagnosed until it has spread to other areas of the body. Most oral cancers begin on the tongue and floor of the mouth; however, it can occur on the lips, cheeks, gums and roof of the mouth, as well as in the throat.

There are many risk factors associated with oral cancer, most of which can be prevented. The following are some of the risk factors: tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, chronic denture irritation, prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light and the human papillomavirus. While all of these factors increase the chances of getting oral cancer, medical research has shown that it has been found in individuals with none of the previously mentioned risk factors. Therefore, everyone must be vigilant in examining their own oral cavity.

The best protection against any type of cancer, including oral or throat cancer is early detection. Signs and symptoms of oral cancer include, but are not limited to: a sore in the mouth that does not heal in 7-14 days or changes in size and shape and abnormal lumps including white, blue or red patches in the mouth. Other signs include: difficulty chewing or swallowing, pain, tenderness or numbness on the mouth or lips, and unexplainable changes in an individual's voice.

It is recommended that individuals perform a monthly self examination to detect any signs of oral cancer. To perform the self examination, one should stand in front of a mirror with sufficient lighting. The first step is to remove any dental prosthesis that may be in the mouth. Next, visually look at and feel the lips, gums and roof of the mouth. Then, pull out the cheeks to check the inside surfaces, as well as the back sides of the gums. After that, check the tongue, to include the sides and the floor of the mouth. Finally, do a neck exam by feeling for enlarged lymph nodes in the neck and under the jaw.

Healthy lifestyle changes and monthly self-examinations are highly recommended to protect against this silent, deadly disease. Remember, the best protection is early detection.