Early detection of oral cancer can save lives


Hall of Fame Quarterback Jim Kelly is battling oral cancer. Actor Michael Douglas has fought the disease, too. According to the American Cancer Society, about 37,000 people will be diagnosed this year.   With April being Oral Cancer Awareness Month, Cleveland Clinic oral cancer expert Dr. Brian Burkey wants to remind everyone that early detection does save lives.

"Some oral cavity cancers are not obvious to patients, they can be behind the teeth or under the tongue, and when picked up early are highly, highly curable," said Burkey.

Symptoms of oral cancer include nagging mouth pain or a bleeding sore in the mouth that won't heal and lasts for more than two weeks. Swelling in the neck that lasts for more than two weeks is also a warning sign. Burkey says it's important to get these symptoms checked by a doctor or dentist sooner than later.

"We see patients all the time that have just had an irritation around their tooth that ends up being squamous cell cancer that may have been bothering them for up to a year," Burkey explained.

One type of oral cancer is "oral cavity" cancer and it can affect the mouth, including lips, teeth and gums. Smoking or chewing tobacco is a major risk factor for developing it. Another type of oral cancer is called oropharyngeal and it affects the back of the mouth and throat. Burkey adds that this type of oral cancer, which is connected to the HPV virus, is on the rise.

"There is right now an epidemic of what we call oropharyngeal cancer which is associated with the human papilloma virus and that is a cancer in the tonsil and the base tongue regions," said Burkey.

Oral cancer screening is generally painless and takes less than 10 minutes. it can be done by your dentist, an oral surgeon or an ear, nose and throat specialist.