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How To Improve an Oral Cancer Prognosis

While oral cancer makes up only three percent of all cancer diagnoses in the United States, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and risks. After all, if diagnosed, there’s one major component that can help improve your recovery prospect: early detection. Here, we’ll discuss the background on oral cancer, symptoms, treatments, and how to reduce your risk so that you can ultimately improve your oral cancer prognosis or course of this disease. 

What is Oral Cancer?

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, oral cancer refers to cancers found in the mouth and back of the throat. These cancers can develop on, under, and at the base of the tongue, the tissue lining the mouth and gums, and the throat's area at the back of the mouth. When it comes to numbers, there are over 53,000 new cases every year. Oral cancer most often occurs in people over the age of 40, and men are twice as likely to be affected as women.

The Causes of Oral Cancer

While cancer can come from many factors, there a few key common causes of oral cancer:

Tobacco and alcohol use: According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, tobacco use is the top risk factor for true oral cavity cancers in people over 50.

Age: As mentioned earlier, people over the age of 40 are at a higher risk.

Sun exposure: Prolonged sun exposure can increase your risk of lip cancer.

HPV: Having human papillomavirus can also increase your risk of developing cancer in the tonsil and the tongue's base.

Early Detection and Symptoms

The most important thing you can do to improve your oral cancer prognosis is to find the cancer early before it spreads. While it may be easier said than done, there are specific symptoms you can start to look for as part of your oral care routine. Beyond self-checks, regular oral cancer screenings, and receiving early treatment can all lead to a positive outcome.

See your oral care professional right away if you notice any of these symptoms when you perform a self-examination:

  • An unusual lump, irritation, or thick patch anywhere in your mouth, lips, or throat
  • A feeling that something is 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
  • Difficulty speaking, chewing, or swallowing
  • A white or red patch in your mouth
  • Ear pain

During a routine checkup, your oral care professional will do a visual examination of your oral cavity, tongue, lips, and face for signs of oral cancer. He or she will also check the neck and jaw area, feeling for any unusual lumps. As stated by the Oral Cancer Foundation, if your oral care professional finds something irregular, they’ll likely refer you to a specialist to have a biopsy. Biopsies are nothing to be frightened about—it’s all part of early detection and can only help determine the best treatment, whether or not it’s cancer.

Treatment & Common Complications

Oral cancer treatment depends on the type of cancer you have and the stage of cancer. While you can treat your oral cancer with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, your medical team will work with you to discuss the best plan depending on your case. 

It’s important to note the oral side effects and complications during treatment, as these can potentially worsen your prognosis. Swelling from the surgery may last for a few weeks, making movement of the mouth difficult. According to the National Cancer Institute, chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause oral complications for any cancer. That’s because these treatments stop or slow the growth of fast-growing cells (and cells in your mouth are fast-growing). That means that these treatments could slow down your oral tissue’s ability to repair itself by making new cells. Radiation therapy may also affect or break down oral tissue and bone, and chemotherapy and radiation therapy can lead to an imbalance of bacteria in the mouth, which can lead to mouth sores, infections, and tooth decay.

While all of this can seem frightening, don’t panic. When you’re dealing with oral cancer, you have a team behind you. Your oncologist will likely work with your oral care professional to ensure proper management of these side effects. If you are going through treatment, keep an eye out when these conditions make eating, speaking, and swallowing difficult or cause changes in food tastes. That’s a sign to reach out to your oral care professional or medical team.

Minimizing Oral Complications

Luckily, addressing oral problems before your cancer treatment starts can lessen or prevent the severity of complications and ultimately lead you to a more successful cancer treatment. Here are some ways to minimize your risk of oral complications:

  1. See your dentist before cancer treatment begins to manage any existing problems such as decay, gum disease, or fractured teeth.
  2. Have an oral care plan in place before you begin treatment.
  3. Keep your mouth moist. Throughout the day, sip water, suck on ice chips, sugar-free candies, or gum – or try a saliva substitute.
  4. Brush with a new soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste after meals and before you go to bed. Floss gently every day, avoid tender or bleeding areas, and use an antiseptic mouthrinse.
  5. Follow your dentist's instructions for using 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

While there are some factors like age that you can’t control, there are other things you can do to prevent your risk of oral cancer. The best thing you can do to reduce your risk of oral cancer is to kick your smoking habit. Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption can also reduce your risk. On that note, smoking tobacco and consuming alcohol together can be dangerous: people who drink alcohol and smoke tobacco are 15 times more likely to develop oral cancer than others. Also, as mentioned earlier, HPV can increase your risk of oral cancer—so talk to your medical professional about receiving the HPV vaccine. Lastly, limiting your sun exposure and wearing sunscreen can help protect your lips from cancer caused by sunlight.

Although prevention is the best medicine, an oral cancer prognosis can be positive and optimistic when you catch and treat the disease early on. Want to get ahead of oral cancer? Understand the risks, make positive changes to your lifestyle, and be on the lookout for signs and symptoms. In fact, just by reading this, you’ve already started your path to prevention!

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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