With the widespread awareness that actor Michael Douglas has oral cancer, this killer disease has once again caught the attention of many people. And it’s for good reason: Oral cancer has only a 50% survival rate, making it a deadly and potentially grossly disfuguring disease.
This is a disease that is increasing really at a dramatic rate, particularly in the male population. Not that long ago, this only made up about 18% of head and neck cancers. Now it makes up a full third and is increasing at a very rapid rate.
Oral cancer can present with or without mouth ulcers or sores. People can get lesions, sores or spots in their mouths for a variety of reasons and many times these sores go away on their own and pose no problem. However, if you have a sore or spot in your mouth that has been there for more than two weeks, it’s important that it be evaluated, as nearly all of these should have healed by then.
As your dentist, I routinely screen you for oral cancer by carefully examining your mouth, tongue and neck. If I find anything suspicious, I may refer you directly to an oral surgeon or physician for further evaluation or I may evaluate any suspicious spot or sore in my office, either through excision (cutting the lesion completely away), incision (taking a section of the lesion), scraping (removal of the surface layers), or by staining (use of a dye to detect abnormal tissue). In any of these situations, any tissue removed will be sent to an oral pathology lab for evaluation by an oral pathologist. In some situations, I may feel it is best to refer to an oral surgeon in the first place. Only a surgical biopsy can confirm if a lesion, spot or sore is oral cancer.
Anyone who uses any type of tobacco, drinks alcohol, and/or is over the age of 45 has the highest risk for oral cancer. Naturally, the best way to prevent oral cancer is to avoid risky behaviors including tobacco and alcohol use; none of us can avoid getting older!
Rest assured we look for lumps, bumps, sores, ulcers, and anything that doesn’t look like it belongs in your mouth every time you have a dental checkup.
However, the key to remember is that ulcers and sores should be healed within two weeks. If they’re not, it doesn’t mean oral cancer, but it’s best to get it evaluated promptly.