By Dr. Michael Vold

Regular dental exams are an important part of oral health care. Visiting your dentist at least twice a year can prevent many future problems, including gum disease and tooth loss. During your visit, both your teeth and gums will be examined. Your dentist will also check the tissues in your mouth for signs of oral cancer. More than 42,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with oral or pharyngeal (throat) cancer.

Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells form the main part of the outer layer of the skin. They can also be found in the lips, mouth and other types of body tissue.

Bodies have built-in processes that normally destroy any cancer cells that are created. When there is a breakdown in certain types of internal communications, it can result in DNA mutations. These changes can not only impact the cell?s ability to control its behavior, but also impede the body?s ability to get rid of the cancer.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the result of uncontrolled cell growth. It can be caused by many factors, including viruses, radiation, UV exposure and toxins, in addition to excessive tobacco and alcohol use, and a diet that consists of very little fruits or vegetables. The disease can also occur due to metastasis from another cancer site in the body.

Human papillomavirus (HPV), version 16 has been determined to increase the risk of oral cancer. There are hundreds of papillomaviruses that produce skin warts. The virus is transmitted through sexual intercourse, and is considered the most frequently sexually transmitted disease. It can take many years from the time of infection for the virus to be clinically detected.

Signs of oral cancer include lesions, ulcers or lumps that do not heal within a few weeks. The cancer is usually small and pale colored. It can appear as white or red patches in the tissue of the mouth, behind wisdom teeth or the ear, as well as on the lip, tongue and inside the mouth.

Oral cancer symptoms typically involve tongue problems and difficulty swallowing, speaking or chewing, along with a persistent earache, facial numbness or hoarseness. In early stages of the disease, there is usually little to no pain. However, as the cancer progresses, it can cause sensations in the mouth and on the tongue, such as prickling, tickling, tingling and burning, as well as increased discomfort in the mouth.

Most lesions can be seen or felt by your dentist. A tissue biopsy is used to confirm the presence of cancer.

If the tumor is small, it will usually be surgically removed. Treatment can also include radiation and chemotherapy. There are several other types of oral cancer surgeries that can be performed depending on the extent of the cancer.

If you have lesions, lumps or skin discoloration on your tongue or in your mouth, schedule a dental exam with a Northbrook dentist who is skilled in oral dental surgery. Early detection of this life threatening disease can increase your chances of successful treatment.

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