Oral & oropharyngeal (throat) cancers

Posted on Aug 13, 2012 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

Close to 40,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year. These cancers kill roughly 1 person every hour, 24 hours per day. Of those, only 57% are estimated to be living 5 years from now. The death rate for oral cancer is one of the worst of all cancers. It is higher than cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, laryngeal cancer, cancer of the testes, thyroid cancer, or skin cancer (malignant melanoma).

The American Cancer Society states that oral and oropharyngeal cancers occur most often in the following sites:
• Tongue (about 25% to 30%)
• Tonsils (about 15% to 20%)
• Salivary glands (about 10% to 15%)
• The rest occur in the lips, gums, floor of the mouth, and other sites.

Although new cases have been dropping over the past few decades, a recent rise has been seen in throat cancers related to HPV (human papilloma virus) in white males under age 50. The average age of most people diagnosed with these cancers is 62, but about a third occur in patients younger than 55.

The death rate for these cancers has seen a slight decrease since the late 1970s. Unfortunately, some symptoms do not emerge until the cancer has reached an advanced stage, or symptoms may be similar to those caused by something as simple as a toothache. For example, an early sign may be a white or red patch of tissue in the mouth. Because tissue changes in your mouth are normal, symptoms can mimic a bite on the inside of your cheek.

Any change to oral tissue that does not heal within 14 days should be examined without delay. Symptoms also include:
• white or red patch of tissue
• lesion in the mouth
• a lump or mass inside the mouth or neck
• difficulty or discomfort when swallowing
• persistent sore throat
• any wart-like masses
• numbness in the oral/facial region

Lesions or discolorations that are early warning signs are not always visible, particularly in the back portion of the mouth (the oropharynx, the tonsils, and base of tongue), which can be an obstacle to early discovery. This is another reason that regular oral hygiene exams and cleanings are so important. During these times, your dentist and hygienist look for unusual changes in the mouth that can indicate a problem. Although you should never wait until your scheduled appointment to have anything unusual examined. Early treatment is key to survival.

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