Lower Your Risk for Oral Cancer

4 min read  |  March 09, 2023  | 
Disponible en Español |

You may assume that if you’re going to get cancer, it’s in your DNA and there’s nothing you can do about it. While there is a genetic component to many types of cancers, environmental and lifestyle factors are important in the development of oral cancer, and you can lower your risk by being proactive about your health.

Your chances of developing oral cancers, in particular, are greatly affected by some simple behaviors.

Reduce your risk for cancers of the mouth by:

  • Don’t use tobacco use of any kind. Whether smoked or chewed, tobacco exposes mouth cells to cancer-causing chemicals.
  • Avoid heavy alcohol use, including mouthwash containing alcohol. Regularly exposing the inside of the mouth to alcohol can irritate the cells, making them vulnerable to mouth cancer. Tobacco smokers who also drink heavily have a significantly increased risk for oral cancers (about 30 times higher than those who don’t smoke or drink).
  • If you wear dentures, keep them clean and well-fitted.
  • Maintain good oral hygiene (brushing, flossing, and regular dental exams and cleanings). Ask your dentist to look for any abnormalities that may point to precancerous changes in your mouth.
  • Do your best to prevent any chronic irritation to the lining of the mouth (like cheek biting).

“Tobacco, alcohol, and chronic trauma (from sharp teeth or poorly fitted dentures) are the most significant and avoidable risk factors for oral cancer,” says Zoukaa Sargi, M.D., M.P.H., a head and neck oncologist with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Don’t delay treatment for chronic dental issues, especially those resulting in local irritation of the tongue or cheek lining,” he says. “Unexplained worsening oral or dental pain that persists and does not respond to simple treatment should raise a red flag. Any persistent sore (lasting more than two to three weeks) on the lining of the mouth should trigger an evaluation by a health care provider who is familiar with oral cancer.”

Your immune health also plays a role in cancer prevention.

“Immuno-suppression is a risk factor for cancer of the mouth,” Dr. Sargi says. “So, supporting your immune system is a healthy strategy.”

You can promote your immune health by managing any underlying health conditions, getting enough quality sleep, eating a heart-healthy diet, lowering your stress, socializing with loved ones, and exercising regularly.

Is oral cancer genetic?

Oral cancer can occur in patients without behavioral risk factors like smoking or drinking. “There is a genetic component to oral cancer,” Dr. Sargi says. “We always inquire about the patient’s history of oral cancer in their family. But, at this point, there is no recommended screening (test for cancer) for family members or first-degree relatives of patients with this disease.”

Some conditions affecting the immune system (like being a transplant recipient) could predispose for oral cancer. A chronic inflammatory condition of the mouth, Oral Lichen Planus is also associated with increased risk of oral cancer.

Is oral cancer curable?

The early-stage detection of oral cancers significantly increases the chance of a cure following treatment.

Diagnosis begins with a visual evaluation of the oral cavity. Special lights could be used to better see difficult to discern lesions, but for most cases, simple light and good inspect of the lining of the mouth is sufficient to detect oral lesions. Following that, the area of concern is sampled with a biopsy. Numerous lesions can mimic oral cancer, so examination under a microscope is the only way to differentiate non-cancerous lesions and precancerous lesions from cancers.

Surgery is the first line treatment for oral cancer and is sufficient for early-stage tumors. The stage is determined both by tumor size and tumor thickness. Tumors that are smaller than 2 cm and thinner than 5 mm are the most likely to be cured (stage 1). To treat advanced-stage tumors, surgery is followed by radiation. In certain cases of aggressive disease, surgery is followed by a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.

If you or a loved one are seeking a diagnosis, second opinion, or treatment for oral cancer, Dr. Sargi recommends visiting a high-volume cancer center that provides multidisciplinary cancer management, like Sylvester. Our team provides oral cancer screenings, robotic technology, microvascular reconstructive procedures, sentinel node identification, and a specialized postoperative care unit.

To make an appointment with an oral cancer specialist at Sylvester, call 1-844-324-HOPE (4673).

Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.

Originally published on: April 05, 2022

Tags: cancer prevention, causes of cancer, dental cancer, Dr. Zoukaa Sargi, mouth cancer, oral cancer

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