Oral cancer, also known as mouth cancer, refers to cancer arising from the lips, cheeks, tongues, gums, palate, or other structures in the mouth. It is now the 6th most common cancer in the world. According to the American Cancer Society, the year 2020 will see 53,260 people diagnosed with mouth cancer and 10,750 people die of mouth cancer.
The earlier is oral cancer found and treated, the better the outcome will be. Experts believe that self-exam is a good way to help detect oral cancers early. The following is what you need to know when you try to start a self-exam.
Know your risk for developing oral cancer
Knowing the risk factors would enable you to stratify your risks. Risk factors for oral cancer include:
· Smoking, such as cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff
· Heavy alcohol drink
· Personal previous history of oral cancer
· Prolonged exposure to the sunlight
· A weakened immune system, which can be found in HIV/AIDS or organ transplant recipients, etc.
· Human papillomavirus infection
· Certain genetic conditions, such as Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita
How do you examine yourself and what should you watch out for?
The areas that you should check include the face, lips, gums, cheeks, the tongue and the mouth floor, the palate, and the neck. You do not need to follow a specific order to check these areas, but just make sure that you do not omit any of these areas.
The face: Look in the mirror and see whether there is any new swelling or irregularity on one side.
Lips: You should observe carefully whether there are ulcers, lumps or hard areas along the upper and lower lips. Make sure that the inner sides of the lips (i.e., the side of the lip contacting the teeth) are also checked.
Gums: Ulcers, redness, swelling, or lumps on the gums should raise the alarm.
Cheeks: Frequently you need to use an external light source to make sure that the cheeks can be observed clearly. You should watch out for ulcers, white patches, tenderness, and lumps.
The tongue: All the sides of the tongue should be carefully checked for lumps and ulcers. Do not forget to observe the floor of the mouth for similar signs.
The palate: The palate is the upper arch of the mouth. You can yourself touch it with your fingers and feel if there is any tenderness. You can also ask a family member or friend to help you.
The neck: The neck should be touched to see if there are swelling lymph nodes. Because the mouth cancers frequently first spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, finding an enlarged node in the neck would prompt further investigation or additional tests.
The bottom line
It should be noted that the signs of oral cancer are not specific. For instance, mouth ulcers can be a sign of oral cancer or just other benign conditions, such as aphthous ulcer. For many doctors, telling the difference between an ulcer caused by cancer and those caused by a benign condition may sometimes be very difficult.
Doctors may need to cut away a small piece of the tissue containing the ulcer (i.e., biopsy) for pathologic examination. This article is not a substitute for medical advice; it is suggested that you see a dentist for further tests when oral cancer is suspected.