This cancer doesn’t get the press that other cancers do. Yet it takes someone’s life every hour.
In fact, this cancer is so deadly that only half of those diagnosed with it today will still be alive five years from now. And among those who do survive, almost all of them caught their cancers early. Which makes it critical to keep an eye out for the unusual warning signs.
The cancer I’m talking about is oral cancer.
Oral cancer attacks two different locations in the mouth:
The oral cavity, which includes your outer lips, the inside of your cheeks and lips, teeth, gums, and the front part of the tongue, as well as the roof and floor of your mouth.
It also includes the oropharynx, which comprises the base of the tongue, tonsils, and middle region of the throat, beginning with the soft part of the roof of your mouth and continuing down into your throat.
The most high-profile case of oral cancer I can recall is that of actor Michael Douglas, who, in an attempt to help others, made his personal cancer battle public. In the process, he called attention to a little-known oral cancer risk-factor, a sexually transmitted virus.
The STD that leads to oral cancer
The fastest-growing cause of oral cancers in non-tobacco users– especially oropharynx (the part of the throat in the back of the mouth) cancers – is a common sexually transmitted virus.
It’s so common in fact that most adults will be infected sometime during their lifetime with human papilloma virus, or HPV, according to the CDC.
HPV-positive oral cancers usually develop at the base of the tongue and in the tonsils. This makes them harder to detect.
Michael Douglas caught his cancer early and, thankfully, is in remission. He’s a great example of why it’s a good idea to be aware of ALL the risk factors for oral cancer.
Nine unusual cancer triggers
you need to know
1. Tobacco use (including smokeless). Tobacco is another leading cause of oral cancer. Especially in men over the age of 50. Do whatever you can to put down tobacco forever, starting today.
2. HPV. The HPV family of viruses hides in moist membranes of the mouth, throat, cervix, and anus. The best way to protect yourself against this STD is to enter and stay in a 100 percent monogamous relationship long-term. If you are infected, you should know that usually your immune system clears the HPV virus on its own within two years. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know in advance whether your immune system is up to that task or not.
3. High alcohol consumption. This leads to long-term severe irritation of cells in your mouth… making you more vulnerable to oral cancer. So, what’s high consumption? Generally anything more than one drink a day. Men under 65 might get by with two drinks a day. If you don’t drink now, it’s best not to start. If you do, cut back, or quit.
4. Poor oral hygiene. Here’s where cleanliness may be next to godliness. At least when it comes to oral cancer prevention. Chronic or frequent wounds on tongue or lips can increase your risk of oral cancer, as can broken or damaged teeth.
5. A standard American diet. Many studies show that poor diet correlates to higher risk of oral cancer (and other cancers). A New Zealand study documented a reduced risk of oral cancer for every cup of vegetables consumed per week.
6. Excessive UV radiation. Your lips are especially sensitive to sun exposure. Wear a hat that’s wide-brimmed enough to shade your lips.
7. Chemical carcinogens. You don’t need to work with chemicals to be at risk. If you eat conventional produce then you’re eating chemically-contaminated food. Research shows a relationship between the carcinogen DMBA and oral cancer in rats. Other studies suggest that chemical contamination of water may affect oral cancer risk.
8. Herpes virus. This virus is transmitted through bodily fluids. What’s more, the carrier might not even know whether he or she is infected. Herpes and HPV are both viruses, but they’re different. While your body may be able to clear HPV on its own, herpes can lie dormant for years before flaring up again.
9. Liver cirrhosis (scarring). This liver damage is usually associated with liver cancer, but research also links it to oral cancer.
Monthly five-minute oral check
can save your life
In the early stages, oral cancer doesn’t cause pain. Any patch or sore spot on your tongue, gums, tonsils, or your mouth’s lining can spell trouble. Here are the warning signs to look for:
- Red or white patches in your mouth
- Bright red patches that look or feel velvety, called erythroplakia
- White or gray patches in your mouth or on your lips, called leukoplakia, are also triggered by chewing on the inside of your cheeks
- Sores on your tongue or on the gums behind your back teeth
- Any lip or mouth sore that doesn’t heal
- Loose teeth
- Any growth or lump inside your mouth
- Difficulty or pain swallowing
- Mouth pain
- Chronic sore throat
- Pain on your right side, which may be a sign of cirrhosis
It’s simple to do a self-check at home for any of these early warning signs. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to find symptoms of oral cancer while it’s still in an early stage, when it’s most treatable. All you need is a couple simple tools: A handheld mirror, a piece of gauze, and a light source such as your mobile device or a Throat Scope™ (an all-in-one tongue depressor and light source).
Then look at…
1. Your neck. Check both sides of your neck, along your jawline, and the muscle that runs above your collarbone. Check your lymph nodes. A firm enlarged lymph node that’s painless and hard to move is a red flag. Compare sides. Note differences between sides.
2. Your lips. Place one finger inside and one outside your lips. Move them back and forth. Are there any hard or lumpy spots?
3. Your gums. Gums should be pale pink close to your teeth. Check for any discoloration, unusual tissue texture, or sores.
4. Inside your cheeks. As with your lips, place one finger inside and one outside. Feel all the way to the back of your jaw for lumps or bumps. Look for abnormal colors or sores. The raised bump near your upper molars is normal, that’s your salivary glands.
5. Your tongue. A high-risk area for oral cancers. It should move from left to right without difficulty. Inspect and feel the top, bottom, and both sides. The little bumps on your tongue (papillae) should be consistent in color and texture. Feel for small hard bumps.
6. The floor of your mouth. Look and feel for any hard small bumps or sores. The blue veins on the bottom of your tongue are normal – they’re your blood supply.
7. The roof of your mouth. Use your light to examine the roof of your mouth. It should be uniform in color and free of sores.
8. The back of your mouth and your tonsils. Depress your tongue and look at your tonsils. Tonsils will vary, even among healthy folks. A swollen tonsil on one side only that’s tender to the touch is usually an infection. A common area for cancers is behind the tonsils in a space called the crypt. Even doctors have a hard time diagnosing in that area, due to the obscurity, darkness, and many folds.
If you see any of the warning signs listed above and it persists for longer than two weeks, seek immediate medical attention. Of course, there are other reasons for mouth and throat sores such as canker sores, and it’s important to know the difference.
Canker sores vs. oral cancer
The defining difference between a canker sore and oral cancer is pain. Canker sores hurt. Oral cancer generally does not.
Plus, canker sores generally resolve on their own in a week or so. That spot in your mouth might be a canker sore if it’s…
- Round or oval shaped
- Small and shallow
- White or yellow, with a red border
Not every canker sore hurts, but most do. Some may take up to six weeks to resolve.
A final line of defense against oral cancer is your dentist. You can ask your dentist to help examine the inside of your mouth, so don’t slack off on those appointments.
These are all fast, simple ways to prevent oral cancer—or nip it in the bud by catching it early— so you can enjoy a long, happy, and healthy life.