April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness on the importance of regular oral cancer screening. Though it may sound intimidating, oral cancer screening is a simple exam that your dentist can perform during your regular dental checkup - and it’s the best way to detect and treat oral and oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the mouth and upper throat) early, while the likelihood of effective treatment and full recovery are best!
-One person dies from oral or oropharyngeal cancers every single hour of every single day of the year.
-This year, an estimated 54,000 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed.
-Of those, 43% will not survive beyond five years.
-Many who do survive will suffer long-term issues, such as difficulty eating and speaking or severe facial disfigurement.
Oral cancer has an unusually high mortality rate because it is so often detected in its later stages. As with all cancers, oral cancer has the best chance of being treated and cured successfully when it is diagnosed early. We strongly recommend and encourage all adult patients, and particularly ones with high risk factors, to get screened for oral cancer regularly!
What are the risk factors of oral cancer? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top risk factor is people who use tobacco regularly. Ahead, more detailed explanations of common risk factors for oral cancers:
Tobacco Use of any kind is the strongest risk factor for oral and oropharyngeal cancers. This includes smoking tobacco (cigarettes, vapes, pipes, etc.) and chewing/smokeless tobacco of all types. If diagnosed with oral cancer, it is incredibly important for people to quit smoking or using tobacco completely. People who continue to smoke or use tobacco while getting cancer treatment often experience difficulties with wound healing, more side effects, higher risk of infection, and increased risk of developing a second cancer in the mouth, throat, or other organs.
If you are thinking about quitting tobacco and need help, there are many great resources here and here. Or consider using a mobile app that will help you stay motivated while tracking and supporting your progress!
Alcohol Consumption also increases the risk of developing oral cancers, and heavy drinkers have a higher risk than light drinkers. It should be noted, too, that smoking and drinking alcohol together multiplies the risk: People who drink and smoke heavily have an approximately 30 times higher risk of developing these cancers than people who don’t drink or smoke.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection can cause some forms of cancer including oropharyngeal cancers, and the number of these cancers linked with HPV has risen greatly over the past few decades. HPV vaccines can prevent infection with certain types of HPV, including types that are linked to HPV-related cancers.
Gender - Oral and oropharyngeal cancers are twice as common in men than in women. This may be because heavy alcohol and tobacco use tends to be more common in men than in women, and HPV-related cancers are also more common in men.
Age - Most patients diagnosed with oral and oropharyngeal cancers are older than 55 - with the exception of HPV-linked cancers, which are more commonly diagnosed in patients aged 50 and younger. However, as noted earlier, oral cancers are overwhelmingly diagnosed in their later stages at which point the mortality rate is quite high, which is why we highly recommend all adults undergo regular oral cancer screening.
Weight and Poor Nutrition: Being overweight and/or having poor nutrition also appear to increase the risk of oral cancers. Increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods may help people lose weight as well as decrease risk of developing oral cancers as a result of poor nutrition.
Ultraviolet (UV) Light exposure (typically sunlight) can cause skin cancer as we all know, and cancers of the lip are more common in people who have outdoor jobs. Be sure to apply broad spectrum SPF on all exposed skin including the lips, and reapply often!
Genetics - as with most cancers, sometimes a high risk factor simply comes down to genetics. In particular, people with fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita have a very high risk of cancers of the mouth and throat.
Oral Health - Some studies suggest that poor oral hygiene may be linked to oral cancers, due to the changes in normal bacteria in the mouth. Although more research is needed, good oral hygiene (brushing and flossing daily, and cleaning removable dental appliances like dentures daily) as well as regular dental visits may lessen these risks. And of course, good oral hygiene and care will have great oral and overall health benefits regardless!