During Oral Cancer Awareness Month, learn how to protect your loved one’s oral health
Whether it’s in person, over a video call, or on the other side of a window, there’s nothing better than seeing your loved one smile when you visit with them in their skilled nursing facility.
But for thousands of senior citizens, smiling is no laughing matter.
This year, more than 54,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer. The risk of developing oral cancer increases with age, starting after about age 50. In fact, the average oral cancer patient is just 62 years old when they are first diagnosed.
Some 10,000 people will die from these cancers, and 60% of those deaths will occur in patients over the age of 65. The five-year survival rate for patients with oral or oropharyngeal cancers is currently just 66% – but there is an 80% cure rate and an 85% five-year survival rate with early diagnosis.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness month, and it’s a great time to take a closer look at how oral and oropharyngeal cancers can affect your loved one’s health and quality of life. Learning about the risk factors and understanding how you can help promote your loved one’s oral health will give them a reason to smile each and every day.
What is Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer?
Oral cancer is any cancer that develops in or around the mouth, including the lips, gums, tongue, the inner lining of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth or under the tongue. Oropharyngeal cancer develops in the oropharynx, which is the middle part of the throat and includes the base of the tongue, tonsils, soft palate, and the walls and side of the throat.
Signs and symptoms of oral and oropharyngeal cancer may include:
- A sore on the lip or in the mouth that doesn’t heal
- A patch of white or reddish skin inside the mouth
- Pain, tenderness, or numbness in the mouth or lips
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing or talking, or with moving the jaw or tongue
- A growth, lump, or swelling inside the mouth
- A change in how teeth fit together when the mouth is closed
Any of these symptoms that persist for 14 days or more should be examined by a dentist.
In its early stages, oral cancer often goes unnoticed. Usually, that is because the disease may not present with any symptoms for several years. Additionally, the patient may not recognize the signs of oral cancer until long after the disease’s progression has begun.
Detecting symptoms of oral cancer can be particularly tricky with elderly patients. If your loved one neglected their oral health earlier in life, they may now be suffering from several dental issues that could mask the signs of oral cancer. They might associate mouth pain or sores with old dental work that may be in disrepair or ill-fitting dentures – or they may believe that since they don’t have any remaining natural teeth, they no longer need to worry about the risks of oral cancer. They may be taking medications that cause oral ulcers or dry mouth. Still, others may be suffering from cognitive impairments that prevent them from expressing any concerns about pain, sores, or swelling. [CALLOUT] That’s why it’s critical for friends, family, and caregivers to know the risk factors associated with oral and oropharyngeal cancers and to take a lead role in making sure your loved one receives proper oral care in their skilled nursing facility.
Understanding the Risk Factors
The factors and behaviors that increase a person’s risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancers include:
- Smoking and tobacco use
If your loved one was a tobacco user during their lifetime, they’re at a higher risk of developing oral cancer; tobacco use is linked to 85% of head and neck cancers.
- Heavy alcohol use
Alcohol has been linked to the development of oral cancers, and notably, the combination of alcohol and tobacco use increases the risk of developing these cancers even more.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
One of the fastest-growing causes of oropharyngeal cancers is HPV infection, specifically a strain known as HPV16. HPV is transmitted sexually and is often associated with younger patients – however, almost 85% of adults between the age of 18 and 65 will have at least one strain of HPV during their lifetime.
- Poor oral hygiene
Irritation in the mouth caused by a lack of good oral hygiene or other dental issues may be connected to a higher risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancers.
- Prolonged sun exposure
Exposure to ultraviolet rays has been linked to cancer of the lip.
How You Can Help Protect Your Loved One’s Oral Health
Even if your loved one is at elevated risk for oral cancer, there are still many steps you can take to help protect their oral health, prevent serious illness and improve their day-to-day life.
Ask your skilled nursing facility to ensure your loved one receives regular dental checkups and screenings.
Dental problems are common among the elderly, and especially so among skilled nursing facility residents. But good dental health has a direct effect on your loved one’s quality of life, so regular checkups and screenings are essential.
Imagine trying to talk with other residents or enjoy community activities if you’re in pain because of mouth sores, aching teeth, or loose dentures. Or consider how self-conscious you might be about your appearance if you were suffering from growths or swelling in your mouth. Dental concerns, including the symptoms and treatments for oral cancers, can also make it difficult to eat, drink or swallow, and the associated pain may disrupt your loved one’s regular sleeping patterns.
Regular dental visits will not only help your loved ones take better care of their oral health, but it will improve the quality of their daily life. And during each examination, a dentist will look carefully for any abnormalities that could be a sign of oral cancer.
- Help your loved one maintain good oral hygiene
Improving your loved one’s oral hygiene may not only reduce their oral cancer risk – studies have also linked poor oral hygiene with heart disease, high blood pressure, pneumonia and an increased risk of developing other cancers.
It’s important to remember that your loved one may face challenges in maintaining their oral hygiene. Conditions such as arthritis or Parkinson’s disease may make it difficult to hold a toothbrush or use it effectively. Or, they may forget to practice good oral hygiene habits due to cognitive impairments that prevent them from conducting daily living activities on their own.  You can help by assisting them with these tasks whenever possible, asking facility staff to help them when you aren’t available, and working with a dentist to identify alternative solutions like adaptive toothbrushes or medicated mouth rinses.
- Stay vigilant for behavior changes that could indicate a serious oral health issue.
If you’ve noticed changes in your loved one’s eating habits or sleeping patterns; if he or she shows a reluctance to wear dentures; or if you see any issues that may need to be evaluated, notify facility staff as soon as possible so they can schedule an on-site dentist appointment.