Friday, July 21, 2017

Cancer of the mouth: the little known signs to spot


By Dr Chris Peterson

Last week, I spoke of oral sex and its link to oral cancer, a disease that is not commonly known in Tanzania.

If I asked you to think of cancer, you would probably think of breast cancer or prostate cancer because these are commonly talked about in Tanzania. But we forget ‘mouth cancer’ in our peril.

I recently talked to my colleague, a clinical oncologist at Ocean Road Cancer Institute and he confessed that this type of cancer has increased by nearly 9 per cent in the last 5 years and more than half of them are men.

That means one in 75 men and one in 150 women, will be diagnosed of cancer over a lifetime. So if you don’t want to be a static, talk to your doctor often for some top tips.

Answering your questions

Here are the most frequently asked questions from my readers and patients, which I have tried to answer a few.

1. What are the warning signs?

Mouth cancer can affect any part of your lip or mouth, in fact, most mouth cancers start in the tonsils.

The most common sign is an ulcer or sore patch that doesn’t heal. However, you should also look out for lumps, red or white patches anywhere in your mouth (including your tongue), unusual mouth bleeding or numbness, pain when you chew or swallow, or feeling of something being caught in your throat.

Mouth cancer gets more common with age (half of those affected are in 40’s) this is probably due to heavy alcoholism and smoking, which is highly practiced by most men than women in Tanzania. However, don’t ignore these symptoms even if you are under 40.

2. How is it diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects mouth cancer, he or she will refer you to be seen by a specialist within two weeks. A biopsy can confirm the diagnosis, and if caught early, the outlook is good.

3. What are the risk factors?

While smoking is the biggest risk factor, oral sex, drinking (too much) alcohol or keeping teeth and gums in poor condition can also contribute. Sticking within the recommended alcohol limits over several days can cut your risk.

4. How do I cut the risk?

The good news is that mouth cancer is preventable. The simplest measure is to stop smoking. Every doctor knows how hard it is to quit but working with a smoking cessation program helps to cut down the risk to a greater extent. Abstaining from certain unhealthy habits like oral sex and heavy alcohol drinking may help to cut the risks too.

My advise

Your gums protects your teeth and the structures that hold them in place. Gum disease starts with the build up of plaque - a combination of small food particles, mucus and bacteria.

It may seem bizzare, but a gum disease has been linked to a wide variety of serious health problems as far as oral cancer is concerned.

So on the premises of “better safe than sorry”, looking after your gums has to be a good idea. And to look after your gums, you need to look after your teeth, that clearly includes brushing your teeth.