Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week (OHANCAW®), awareness-raising week is from April 11-17 this year.
According to Samer Al-Khudari, Otorhinolaryngology “Cancers of the oral cavity (including the lips, cheeks and tongue) and the oropharynx (including the soft palate, tonsils and throat) can crop up in a variety of ways and are not always easy to spot.”
Symptoms vary, as not all patients have pain or irritation. Sometimes the symptoms are barely noticeable in the early stages.
That’s a big reason why these cancers often go undiagnosed until the later stages, after they have spread to the lymph nodes
Things to Know About Oral Cancer
Important things to know about oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer:
- Men are twice as likely to be diagnosed with these cancers as women.
- The number of patients under 50 years old has been steadily increasing; and sometimes, these cancers occur in young adults in their 20s and 30s.
- Patients who survive a first encounter with the disease have a higher risk of developing a second, related cancer. That increased risk can last for 5 to 10 years.
- Biopsy is the only way to properly diagnose oral and oropharyngeal tumors and lesions.
- Various types of cancers can be found in one small area of the body, but each type has different causes and treatments.
- Patients on immunosuppression medications — typically those who had an organ transplant — have an increased risk of head and neck cancer.
The good news is that even at the later stages, these cancers are still very treatable.
Many oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers can be prevented altogether with sensible self-care and healthy lifestyle choices.
Five Preventive Tips:
Steer Clear of Tobacco
The longer you’ve used tobacco and the more often you use it, the greater your risk of head and neck cancers.
Chewing, smokeless and snuff tobaccos, which are placed directly in the mouth, can create gray-white ulcers called leukoplakia in the mouth that can become cancerous. Smokeless tobacco also contains chemicals known to damage a gene that protects against cancer.
Drink Alcohol in Moderation
As with smoking, the longer you use alcohol and the amount you drink, the more your risk goes up. That’s because alcohol plays a role in changing the body’s chemistry to break down its defenses against cancer.
Avoid excessive drinking, people who have more than 3.5 alcoholic drinks per day increase their risk of oral cavity cancers two to three times, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Visit your Dentist Regularly
Very often, dentists and dental hygienists are the first to notice potentially cancerous growths.
Typically, they catch things really early during routine dental exams. They can then refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist.
In addition to visiting the dentist every six months, be sure to brush and floss twice a day — and after meals — to keep your teeth and mouth healthy.
If you have a history of severe sunburns, take extra care with your lips. Just as skin can burn easily, the lips are also sensitive to the sun.
Get Vaccination for HPV
Human papillomavirus (HPV), particularly HPV16, is strongly associated with oropharyngeal cancers, especially those at the back of the mouth.
The best way to prevent HPV is to get vaccinated before you become sexually active. With vaccines now available that protect against two strains of HPV — recommended for 11- to 26-year-olds — there is hope that the number of cases of these cancers will decrease over time as more people are vaccinated.
And because you can get HPV from a single sexual encounter, practice safe sex.
Use Sun-Shield to Protect Your Lips
Lip cancer is related to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, and people who work outdoors and have prolonged exposure to the sun are more likely to develop lip cancer.
If you have a history of severe sunburns, take extra care with your lips. In addition to limiting sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., always wear a protective lip balm with SPF when you’re outside, and reapply it after you eat or drink, or whenever you reapply sunscreen. Wear hats that shield your face from the sun.