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Oral Cancer Awareness Month: Educate, Screen, Treat

Two years ago I shared the moving account from a friend whose Dad succumbed to head and neck cancer. Last night, while reading my Costco magazine, I read an article by Joana Breckner about her struggle with oral cancer. Stories like this remind me that while the challenges we face with our health are personal, the lessons learned are those that can and should be shared with others. April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month and I want to take a moment to provide you with the knowledge you need to monitor your own health and the health of those you love.

Head and neck cancer is a term used to describe a number of different malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth. There are five main types of head and neck cancer, each named according to the part of the body where they develop.

  • Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer

  • Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer

  • Nasopharyngeal Cancer

  • Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer

  • Salivary Gland Cancer

Recent data suggest that head and neck cancer accounts for about 4% of all cancers in the United States[1]. These cancers are more than twice as common among men as they are among women. It is estimated that more than 65,000 men and women in the US will could be diagnosed with head and neck cancer this year[2].


There is often the misconception that cancer of the head and neck is an affliction only of older males who have a history of tobacco and alcohol use. Age, gender and social history are risk factors, but the risks below (this is a summary and is not all inclusive) will help you to understand your risk and why you should obtain regular screening from your dentist and/or primary care provider.

  • Tobacco use. This includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff.

  • Alcohol use. Note that using alcohol and tobacco significantly increases your risk.

  • Prolonged sun exposure. Your ears, lips and nose are high risk target areas. Be sure to use sunscreen and avoid excessive or repeated sun exposure.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research indicates that infection with HPV is becoming an increasingly common risk factor for some types of head and neck cancer. HPV is most often passed from person to person during sexual activity. You should feel free to discuss the value of the HPV vaccine with your care provider if you are concerned about your exposure and associated risks[3].

  • Gender. Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer. However, the rate of head and neck cancer in women (and even young women) has been rising for several decades.

  • Age. People over 40 are at higher risk for head and neck cancer.

  • Race. Black people are more likely than white people to develop certain types of cancer of the head and neck.

  • Poor oral/dental hygiene. Poor oral hygiene may play a role in increasing the risk of head and neck cancer. It may also be associated with some of the other risk factors above.


As with any type of illness, prevention is the best medicine. Many of us know people who seemingly had no risks and yet developed cancer of the head and neck. As with any form of cancer, as of today there is no proven way to completely prevent this disease. There may also be some genetic predisposition that we will learn more about over time. If you have any of the risk factors for head and neck cancer you can take steps to lower your risk and seek guidance from your primary care provider. I will suggest that two things you can do to impact your overall health are to stop the use of all tobacco products and use alcohol in moderation. Part of your annual or biannual preventive dental exam will also include screening for oral cancer. This is an important part of your annual health maintenance especially if you have any of the risk factors above.

Early Detection

I know you’re busy. We’re all busy. However, the price you might pay for ignoring the signs and symptoms of disease can be a hefty one. Below are some of the common signs and symptoms that people with head and neck cancer may experience. I have also diagnosed head and neck cancer in people who had none of the symptoms below. There are also other conditions which might cause some of the symptoms outlined below. If you are concerned about symptoms you might currently be experiencing, please schedule an appointment with your primary care provider asap. Listen to your body and be sure to have a thorough head and neck cancer screening exam at least once a year.

  • Swelling or sore that does not heal

  • Red or white patch in the mouth

  • Lump or bump in the head or neck area, with or without pain

  • Persistent sore throat

  • Foul mouth odor not explained by hygiene

  • Hoarseness or change in voice

  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion

  • Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge

  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaws or tongue

  • Ear and/or jaw pain

  • Unexplained loosening of teeth

  • Unexplained weight loss

National Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week is April 2 – 9, 2017. We would like to use the month of April to help spread key messages related to the prevention, screening, early detection and treatment of cancer of the head and neck. Share this message with those you know or love. You could save a life by doing so.





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