Our bodies are changing all the time as we age, going from infant and toddler to active senior still in the game. So changes to various body parts are routine. We may see a new mole, but not recognize it as a potential danger sign of a simple skin cancer. Men may visit the bathroom 30 times a day due to an enlarged prostate gland and either choose to live with it or simply accept frequent urination as part of the aging process. Living with changes, or ignoring change, is especially true of oral cancers – cancer of tongue, lips, checks, esophagus, larynx and other body bits around your mouth. As with all cancers, the earlier a cancer is detected and treatment undertaken, the better the outcomes. This is especially true of tongue cancer and other oral cancers, yet how often do we examine ourselves for early signs of oral cancer?
You’re the one most familiar with your body and the changes and phases it goes through. You’re also in the best position to discover changes that may indicate a form of oral cancer is present since you spend more time looking at your mouth than anyone else. So, what to look for? Well, oncologists – medical doctors who specialize in the prevention and treatment of cancer, have some suggestions. These tips for self examination don’t take long, they don’t hurt, you can do them yourself and, in the process, make yourself a strong advocate for your own good health.
Here are seven simple self-examine steps you can take to help identify oral cancers in their earliest stages, so you can get yourself into a treatment program NOW!
1. Tongue and floor of the mouth
- Look in a mirror and stick out your tongue.
- Examine the upper surface of the tongue for any unusual lumps or obvious changes in color. Dark blotches, for example, on the upper surface of the tongue should be examined.
- Pull the tongue forward and examine the sides for lumps, bumps, masses and, again, obvious changes in skin color or texture. If you discover any obvious swelling, see a doctor. Oral cancers are often painless, making them difficult to diagnosis based on pain. But you can see oral cancer, in many instances, early enough to solve the problem as an out patient. How cool is that?!
- Examine the underside of your tongue by placing the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Same procedure. See any unusual bumps, lumps, swelling or changes in skin color.
- Your tongue should have a uniform texture and uniform color. Glide you finger along the underside of your tongue to feel for unseen bumps. Any deviation should be examined by your family doctor first to see if a visit to an oncologist is step #2.
2. Examine the roof of your mouth
The roof of the mouth is easy to examine with your eyes and with your fingers. Tilt your head back as you stand in front of a mirror. Position yourself so you get a good view of the entire upper mouth.
Perform a visual exam for discoloration. Then gently slide your finger over the roof of your mouth feeling for any kind of protrusion. (Pizza blisters don’t count.) If you feel anything out of the ordinary, report to your doctor stat!
3. Check your cheeks
Visually inspect your cheeks. Extend them (be gentle) to look for red, white or dark-colored patches. Next, place your forefinger on the interior check and your thumb on the outer cheek. Gently squeeze as you rotate you fingers across the entire cheek. This is the best way to detect lumps, bumps or swelling – through the sense of touch. Cheek cancer can often be felt before there are any visible symptoms.
4. Head and Neck
Stand with your head straight up in front of a mirror. Usually, your face is uniform, i.e., has the same shape on both sides. However, a lump, bump or other protrusion on one side of the face is a definite signal to see your doctor. It may be nothing, it may be something. In either case, it’s worth checking out and a visit to your family doctor is the best place to start when you first detect unevenness within your facial structure.
The lips are highly sensitive to sunlight and lip cancer is one possible (and unfortunate) result. Open your mouth and examine both the outer and inner lip for changes in color or texture. Gently extend you lips to get the best view of the interior lip area. (You may have to do a little twisting to get the view you want. If so, use a hand mirror to get a good look at the interior lip surface.) Discoloration and protrusions are sometimes early signs of lip cancer. However, you accidently bite your lip, the lips are constantly moving as you talk, you moisten your lips with your tongue and so on, so expect to see changes. Even the seasons change the exterior portion of the lip so dried lips in the middle of winter aren’t a sign of cancer, though you may want to get some chap stick to keep lips moist.
6. Neck Area
This is where the esophagus and larynx are located, but we can’t see that far down our own throats, even if we stand on our heads. (Please don’t try this at home.) However, using a feather-light touch, gently slide you fingers along the sides and front of your neck feeling for any lumps that you discover on one side of your neck but not the other. Use your finger tips to gently glide over the skin of your neck feeling for anything out of the ordinary. Next, apply a small amount of pressure as you slide your fingers over the skin. This time note any tenderness, soreness of swelling. So, first a gentle exam, and then add a little pressure to identify any soreness or swelling.
7. A Persistent Cough
You can feel it and hear it – a cough that just doesn’t go away. Often, you chalk it up to a cold, but you don’t have any symptoms of a cold. Just that cough. Smokers (28% of Americans still smoke despite all the solid evidence that smoking is bad for just about every part of your body) may experience “smoker’s” cough that comes and goes. This often occurs when the upper portion of the lungs become irritated.
It also occurs when the airway to the lungs becomes irritated and inflamed. Most smokers just live with it, though for many, not as long. Quitting, even for a couple of days, will sometimes clear up a case of smoker’s cough but if you still have a scratchy sore throat even though you’ve given up smoking until your throat feels better, make an appointment to see your doctor.
There are some other things you can do to ensure early detection of mouth cancers beside kicking butt. Ask your dentist to perform an examine each time you’re in for a cleaning. Some dental professionals perform this examine routinely. All will be happy to give your mouth and throat a good look if you ask.
Make examining your mouth part of your oral hygiene regimen each day. Takes less than a minute, you get a better feeling for what’s going on in there (and therefore can more easily identify changes), and you may hit the jackpot and discover a form of oral cancer before it even has the chance to do any damage.
Today’s treatments, using computer-assisted and robotic surgery, deliver better outcomes for those who do find a lump, bump or notice a dark spot on the cheek that wasn’t there six months ago.
Take the time to check for oral cancers. It may give you more time, even though it only takes a minute.