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April Is Oral Cancer Awareness Month — What You Need to Know

Educate Yourself on the Risk Factors, Signs, and Symptoms

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Approximately 53,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed this year with oral cancer (cancer of the mouth).

One hundred forty-five new people every day will be diagnosed with an oral cancer, and one person every hour of the day will die from it — that's nearly 9,000 deaths from oral cancer every year.

Of the people newly diagnosed with oral cancer, only about 60% will live longer than five years.

Moreover, many who do survive suffer long-term problems such as severe facial disfigurement or difficulties eating and speaking. The death rate associated with oral cancer remains high because the cancer tends to be discovered late in its development.

Oral cancer awareness in the American public is low. While smoking and tobacco use are major risk factors, the fastest growing segment of oral cancer patients is young, healthy, nonsmoking individuals due to the connection to the human papillomavirus (HPV). The only hope to save lives is public awareness.

"Early cancer diagnosis saves lives. If detected early, oral cancer has an 80% survival rate. The most effective way to manage oral cancer is to combine early diagnosis with timely and appropriate treatment," says David K. Lam, MD, DDS, PhD, professor of surgery and oral and maxillofacial surgery.

The fastest-growing cause of oral, head and neck cancers is HPV. In fact, if you have HPV, you're 30 times more likely to develop oral cancer.

Oral cancer can be treated when detected early. People can learn how to examine themselves for possible signs and symptoms (see instructions). If one is detected, they should see their dentist, oral and facial surgeon, or other healthcare professional immediately.

Some of the most common oral cancer signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent mouth sore: a sore in the mouth that does not heal is the most common symptom of oral cancer
  • Pain: persistent mouth pain is another common oral cancer sign
  • A lump or thickening in the cheek
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
  • A sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat that does not go away
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness of the tongue or elsewhere in the mouth
  • Jaw swelling that makes dentures hurt or fit poorly
  • Loosening of the teeth
  • Pain in the teeth or jaw
  • Voice changes
  • A lump in the neck
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent bad breath

If any of these oral cancer signs or symptoms are present for days or weeks, your doctor may recommend tests to check for oral cancer. As with any cancer, having your cancer diagnosed as soon as possible will help ensure that any treatment is as effective as possible.

Free screening for oral cancer will be provided on Sunday afternoon, April 14, by the Stony Brook Dental Care Center team at the Spring Health Fair in Peconic on the North Fork (details). Early detection is key! Screening takes less than 10 minutes. A clinician looks over the inside of the mouth to check for white patches or mouth sores, feels the tissues in your mouth to check for lumps or other abnormalities, and may use a state-of-the-art non-invasive scope device that emits a harmless, bright blue light to see mouth tissue changes not visible under normal white light examination.

For consultations/appointments with our oral cancer specialists, please call 631-632-8975 for Dr. David K. Lam and 631-444-4121 for Dr. Lukasz Czerwonka and Dr. Ghassan J. Samara. Listen to survivor Michael Douglas (1:00 min):