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April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month: Here’s What You Need to Know

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month: Here’s What You Need to Know

April Is Oral Cancer Awareness Month: Here’s What You Need to Know

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be nearly 55,000 new cases of oral cancer in 2023. Rates of oral cancer rose over the past few years. Knowing the basics about oral cancer can help you detect cancer early. Oral Cancer Awareness Month, observed every April, is an opportunity to spread the word about oral cancer and what you can do to help prevent it.

Oral cancer, also called oropharyngeal cancer, develops in the mouth, throat, lips, or tongue. The most common type of oral cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer starts in thin cells that line the mouth and throat.

“There’s not much talk about oral cancer,” said Stephanie DuPape, Wyoming Cancer Resource Services Coordinator. “Still, it’s important to keep the risk factors in mind and cut down anywhere you can.”

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

Having the human papillomavirus (HPV) significantly increases your risk of developing oral cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection spread through skin-to-skin contact.

“You’re 30% more likely to get oral cancer if you have HPV,” DuPape said. “We see a high amount of throat and neck cancers in men caused by HPV, more than we do in women.”

Other oral cancer risk factors include:

  • Being age 40 or older
  • Chewing, smoking, or vaping tobacco
  • Drinking alcohol frequently
  • Not getting proper nutrition
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Spending a lot of time in the sun

Having risk factors for oral cancer does not mean you will get it. Similarly, people with no risk factors can still develop oral cancer.

Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Signs and symptoms of oral cancer are often mistaken for other health conditions. They may include:

  • A lump in your neck
  • Chronic hoarseness
  • Difficulty chewing, speaking, or swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • Feeling like something is stuck in your throat
  • Frequent sore throats
  • Mouth or tongue numbness
  • Red or white patches in your mouth or on your tongue
  • Sores in your mouth or on your tongue
  • Swelling in your jaw
  • Thickened skin or tissue in your mouth or on your lip

Let your doctor or dental professional know if you notice any possible signs of oral cancer that last for two weeks or more.

[H2] Lowering Your Risk

Getting an HPV vaccination is an excellent way to lower your risk of developing oral cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting the HPV vaccine at ages 11 or 12. It’s also recommended for people ages 13 to 26 who have not yet received the vaccine. If you’re 27 or older and have not been vaccinated, talk with your provider to determine if you would benefit from it.

The Wyoming Cancer Resource Services is a statewide program that partners with Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County to offer HPV screenings and vaccinations in Sweetwater County. Talk with your provider about making an appointment or attend a screening or vaccination event.

Quitting smoking or addressing alcohol misuse can also lower your risk of developing oral cancer. It’s challenging to deal with tobacco or alcohol addiction alone. Talk with your provider to get started and find the support you need.

Oral Cancer Screenings and Self-Exams

Screenings and self-exams can help detect oral cancer early when it’s often easier to treat. Oral cancer screenings are easy, fast, and painless.

“Make sure you get your regular dental exams,” DuPape said. “When you go get your regular yearly checkup with your dentist, they check for signs of oral cancer. You can also do your own oral cancer self-exam.”

You can also do a self-exam with a mirror and good lighting. Follow these steps:

  1. If you wear dentures, take them out.
  2. Look for signs of oral cancer on the:
    • Bottom, sides, and top of your tongue
    • Floor of your mouth
    • Gums
    • Inside your cheeks
    • Lips
    • Roof of your mouth
  3. Feel for lumps on your neck and under your jaw on both sides.

Talk with your provider if you notice any possible signs of oral cancer.

Support for People with Oral Cancer

Support groups are available through the Wyoming Cancer Resource Services Program for people who have been diagnosed with oral cancer. The Healthy U workshop series can also help you learn more about managing your health and living well with an ongoing medical condition.

Concerned about your cancer risk? Find a provider today to discuss your concerns with, and learn more about your risk of developing oral cancer.