You’re sitting in the dentist’s chair. The hygienist has finished cleaning your teeth. Maybe you had some X-rays. Now the dentist is taking a look. She checks your teeth, probes your gums a bit. You’re ready to hop up and go—but she’s still looking closely at your gums and palate, and she even lifts up your tongue and checks underneath. “Whaaa u ooing?” you ask, in the secret language of dental patients.
She informs you she’s checking for signs of oral cancer. You relax, smiling (sort of). That’s good news.
Major risk factors
Oral cancers strike nearly 40,000 people each year. An estimated 8,000 people die from these cancers annually. It is twice as common among men than women, and the risk increases with age. Major identified risk factors include human papilloma virus (HPV); chronic irritation, such as from dentures; medications that suppress the immune system; and generally poor oral care and hygiene.
Tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption are major risk factors. Smoking and drinking together are a double whammy, increasing the likelihood of oral cancer by a factor of 15. However, about one-fourth of all oral cancers occur in people who do not smoke and who only drink once in a while.
Early detection is critical
Symptoms of cancers include white plaques in the mouth; swelling, lumps or bumps; rough patches; unexplained bleeding or sores that won’t heal; hoarseness or chronic sore throat; difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking; and even ear pain.
Early detection is the key. Although some people may notice a warning sign, many of the sores, bumps or ulcers in the mouth that are cancerous are painless in their early stages. The practiced eye of a dental professional may be the first to observe a potential oral cancer. He may perform a biopsy. An oral brush biopsy is painless and just wipes a small sample of the tissues for examination. Or, the dentist may want a scalpel biopsy, using local or sometimes general anesthesia.
The dentist may recommend further tests to determine the extent of the cancer. These could include X-rays, CT scans, MRI, PET scans or an endoscope to examine throat, windpipe and lungs. And, the dentist may refer patients to another kind of specialist, such as an oral surgeon; head and neck surgeon; ear, nose and throat specialist; or doctors who specialize in cancer treatment.
Treatment and care for side effects
Treating oral cancer is similar to treatment for other kinds of cancer. The options include surgery to remove the cancerous tissue, as well as radiation or chemotherapy.
Although treating oral cancer can be life-saving, it can take a toll on oral tissues, as well as one’s general health. Nausea and fatigue are common side effects of cancer treatment. Radiation can also cause painful inflammation and ulcers in the mouth and throat. Pain medication and topical anesthetics can be helpful for these.
Teeth can be more susceptible to decay following radiation therapy, so it is more important than ever to maintain excellent oral hygiene. Use an extra-soft toothbrush and warm water if regular brushing is painful. Your dentist may also recommend additional fluoride application.
Dry mouth, or xerostomia, is another common problem that can make it hard to eat, talk or swallow. Medication may cause temporary dry mouth, but sometimes radiation destroys salivary glands making dry mouth a permanent condition. Your dentist can recommend various ways to relieve symptoms, including ways to replace saliva or increase the effectiveness of saliva’s natural antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Complete oral care, including antioxidants
Because of the vulnerability of oral tissues—including gums and teeth—to any kind of cancer treatment, it is important to deal with any dental issues before starting treatment. Once treatment begins, gum disease, cavities, or other issues may become much worse.
PerioSciences products, antioxidant-infused gel and mouth rinses, are excellent for nourishing delicate oral tissues and balancing the chemistry within the oral cavity. People with healthy mouths love the taste and feel of our products and the vibrant appearance of their gums. We have heard from people with oral inflammation and dry mouth how much they appreciate AO ProVantage dental gel and AO ProRinse because they are cool and soothing without the burning sensation of many oral products. The antioxidants phloretin and ferulic have been shown to neutralize free radicals associated with inflammation and infection, and they complement the natural antioxidants found in normal saliva.
PerioSciences topical antioxidants are an important addition to regular oral hygiene, on top of routine brushing, flossing and dental visits. And, for people dealing with oral cancer, or with oral problems due to any cancer treatment, our products are the cooling, soothing antioxidant alternatives.