When someone says cancer self-exam, your oral health probably does not spring to the top of your mind. Maybe it should! As we enter April and Oral Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a great time to learn about self-screening for oral, head, and neck cancers and the role your dental care team can play in helping you stay healthy and cancer-free.
Oral, head and neck cancers are not the most common cancers, but they are altogether too common, and they are dangerous cancers. According to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, one person will die from oral, head, or neck cancer every hour of every day. Those who survive will often be left with radically altered appearances or trouble eating and speaking. The problem is not that oral cancers are impossible to treat. The problem is that diagnosis is often delayed, and the longer cancer has had to grow, the harder it is to treat. So how do we detect oral cancer in a timely fashion, when it’s still early enough to treat without major complications?
The first line of defense against oral cancers is regular exams, and the person who is best equipped to provide those exams is your dentist. If you see your dentist regularly and your dentist performs a painless cancer screening, you have a better chance of catching any potential cancers in a timely fashion. But, you don’t need to limit your check to infrequent visits to the dentist. You can perform a monthly self-exam to give yourself the very best chance at preserving good oral health.
A self-exam is simple. All you need is a bright light and a mirror. Take out any dentures or removable retainers and take a look inside your mouth. Look at and feel your lips, gums, the roof of your mouth, and cheeks. Pull out your tongue and look at all the surfaces. Feel your neck and lower jaw for lumps. If you find any lumps in your mouth or throat, red or white patches, thickened areas, or a sore that won’t heal and bleeds easily, consult your dentist or doctor right away to have it checked out professionally. You should also have chronic hoarseness or problems with chewing or swallowing checked out promptly.
All told, it only takes a minute or two once a month, but those few minutes a year can potentially save you from long term pain. Take advantage of Oral Cancer Awareness Month this April by building a healthy habit that costs nothing and could save you a lot!