Approximately 40,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, according to estimates by The National Cancer Institute. It may appear in soft tissues including the gums, cheeks, lips, tongue, the floor or roof of the mouth, or the throat.
Cancer screening is an important part of your regular dental checkups. Your dentist and hygienist will watch for signs of cancer, including unusual changes in the tissues since your last appointment. This is one of many reasons for maintaining bi-annual visits. If any abnormalities are detected, a biopsy will be taken using a scalpel or brush. Treatment for cancer is both less invasive and more effective in the early stages of the disease.
If you notice any signs of cancer, don't wait until your next checkup; schedule an appointment right away. The most common symptoms include:
- Sores in your mouth that bleed easily or will not heal
- A lump or hard spot
- A crusty or rough area
- Tenderness, pain, or numbness
- Changes in your tooth alignment
- Difficulties speaking, chewing, moving your tongue, or swallowing
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) guidelines recommend always seeing your dentist before beginning treatment for oral cancer. During treatment, you will need to check your mouth daily, looking for new wounds or changes in tissues.
Keeping your mouth moist is important. There are several things you can do to prevent tissues from drying out:
- Sip water frequently
- Suck on chips of ice (do not chew ice, as it can damage your teeth)
- Chew sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva flow
- Saliva substitutes are available if necessary
If you have been diagnosed with oral cancer, it is vital to clean your mouth gently, but thoroughly:
- Use an extra soft toothbrush and gently clean your teeth, tongue, and gums. If this is painful, try softening the brush with warm water.
- Use a toothpaste containing fluoride.
- Your dentist can prescribe a fluoride gel.
- Avoid alcohol-containing mouth rinses.
- Floss every day, very gently.
- Several times each day, rinse your mouth with baking soda water (.25 tsp. per quart). Follow with a plain water rinse.
- Talk to your dentist if any appliance is causing discomfort.