The week of April 8 is National Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week, and your dentist or dental hygienist may be your first line of defense against oral cancer.
More than 50,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer (cancer of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and the tonsils) in 2018, and 2,760 will be diagnosed in New York state alone.
Routine dental exams can detect cancer or pre-cancers at early stages. If you notice a persistent sore or pain, swelling or changes in your mouth, or red or white patches on the gums, tongue, tonsils, or lining of the mouth, visit a doctor or dentist so they can examine your mouth more closely.
Some people diagnosed with oral cancer have no risk factors, so it’s important for everyone to keep those dental appointments. If you use tobacco products, drink alcohol in excess, or have the human papillomavirus (HPV), you are at increased risk for oral cancer.
Oral cancer is more common in older adults, particularly men, but oropharyngeal cancer is on the rise in middle-aged, nonsmoking white men between the ages of 35 and 55. The majority of these cancer cases are caused by HPV.
Take charge of your health to reduce your risk of oral cancer. If you smoke or chew tobacco, quit now (it’s never too late). Limit your alcohol consumption to no more than one drink a day for women or two for men.
If you have children, make sure they receive the HPV vaccine, which is recommended for all girls and boys ages 11 and 12. A “catch-up” vaccine is also available for young women up to age 26 and most young men up to age 21.
You can be your own best advocate. Check the inside of your mouth in the mirror each month, and speak up to your dentist or hygienist if you notice any changes that concern you.
Ask about cancer screenings when making your dental appointments. To learn more about cancer prevention, visit preventcancer.org or mouthhealthy.org for more details on oral cancer.
Dr. Wayne Kye is the spouse of Congresswoman Grace Meng and a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program.