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Oral Cancer and Esophageal Cancer

Perhaps you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with oral or esophageal cancer, or you have general questions about these cancers because you're curious about who's at risk. Learning about the risk factors, treatment, and potential outcomes can help deepen your understanding of these cancers. What's most important to know is that prevention and early detection are critical. Finding out you or a family member has either of these cancers is difficult news. But we hope this information provides a resource for you to feel empowered to make the right decisions for you and your family.

Oral Cancer

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, over 53,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year. Unfortunately, the survival rate after five years is only 57%. Oral cancer usually manifests as a growth in your mouth area, whether it be on your gums, lips, other parts of the inside of your mouth, including the posterior portion and throat.

Who Is at Risk?

As noted by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, oral cancer is more common in men than in women. It's more prevalent among non-white males, and the rate of this type of cancer increases with age. The most common risk factors for oral cancer include tobacco use, excessive alcohol use, getting a lot of sun exposure, and certain HPV strains.

While there's no way to guarantee you won't get oral cancer, mitigating the chances by reducing the risk factors in your control can significantly help. As well as staying healthy by not smoking, drinking in moderation, and staying out of the sun, visiting your dentist and dental hygienist for regular checkups is critical.

Symptoms

Your dental professional will do an oral cancer screening at your checkup. The goal is to discover oral cancer early on or to find precancerous patches.

Symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • a lump or patch (white or red) inside your mouth
  • a sore in your mouth or lip that doesn't heal
  • loose teeth
  • persistent mouth pain, ear pain, or painful swallowing

Treatment

As the Oral Cancer Foundation puts it, "treatment of oral cancers is ideally a multidisciplinary approach." Your treatment will be heavily dependent on the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed. It may involve some mix of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery.

Esophageal Cancer

The American Cancer Society estimates that there are about 18,440 new cases of esophageal cancer in the United States per year and about 16,170 deaths. While your dental professional can check for oral cancer at your dental checkup, esophageal cancer does not have this type of screening tool. This cancer occurs in your esophagus, a tube-like organ that runs from your throat to your stomach. Your esophagus plays a vital role in carrying food and liquids through your body, and it's believed that severe irritation causes cancer.

Who Is at Risk?

Like oral cancer, you are more at risk of getting esophageal cancer if you are male, smoke, have HPV, or drink an excessive amount of alcohol. As noted by the American Cancer Society, other common risk factors include obesity, a diet of processed meats, and a sedentary lifestyle. People who have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are a little more likely to get esophageal cancer. Bad breath, a dry cough, heartburn, and acid resuscitation are symptoms of GERD. It occurs when the acid in your stomach that helps digest food slips up a little into your esophagus.

The American Cancer Society also notes that people who have had some cancers, like oral cancer, are more like to have esophageal cancer. This may be because they have common underlying risk factors.

Symptoms

Unfortunately, people are often not diagnosed until symptoms begin to appear, and usually, they appear at a later stage of progression.

Symptoms of esophageal cancer include:

  • Chest or bone pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weight loss or vomiting
  • Hoarseness or a chronic cough
  • Bleeding into the esophagus

Treatment

Several tests can confirm the diagnosis and spread of esophageal cancer. Once cancer and its stage are confirmed, Mayo Clinic notes that surgery can be done alone or with other treatments, including radiation, chemotherapy, targeted drug therapy, and immunotherapy.

As you can tell, the symptoms for both of these cancers are very general. It's common to experience one or several of these symptoms without having oral or esophageal cancer. So there's no need to panic!

What's important is to continue with your dental checkups and reduce your risk factors. Dental professionals play a vital role in the early detection of oral cancer and can discuss risk factor mitigation for both cancers. People often attend their routine dental checkups more often than their regular physical exams, so this relationship is essential. And since both cancers are relatively hard to detect by yourself in their early phases, early detection by a medical or dental professional may make all the difference!

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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