Oral Cancer – while it is not as well known as other forms of cancer, this disease kills one person each hour, 24 hours a day. Every. Single. Day.
Though it is a fairly wide-spread issue, campaigns and foundations for other cancers are much more well-known and part of main stream society, most notably the Susan G. Komen foundation with their Race for the Cure. Typically associated with just the mouth, the term oral cancer refers to cancers that effect not only the mouth, but also other areas of the head and neck. The Oral Cancer Foundation defines the disease as, “cancer, [that] can occur anywhere in the mouth, on the surface of the tongue, the lips, inside the cheek, in the gums, in the roof and floor of the mouth, in the tonsils, and in the salivary glands.”
While the wide-spread awareness of how to spot signs of breast cancer has helped many identify the disease in early stages, oral cancers are still typically not discovered until very late – resulting in a high mortality rate. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation (“OCF”), most cases are not noticed until the cells have spread and metastasized in other parts of the body – especially the lymph nodes. Due to the typically late diagnosis of oral cancer (many forms cause no pain until very late stages), treatment options have to be increasingly aggressive and can require surgeries for large or small tumors where some of the tongue and jawbone may require removal. These aggressive treatment methods can also lead to the need for a variety of alternative feeding methods – blending food or a liquid diet, the use of a life-long feeding tube and the loss of the ability to taste.
Due to many campaigns like #FinishIt and “World No Tobacco Day,” by now it is not hard to realize that the biggest risk factor for oral cancer is tobacco usage. In fact, tobacco is the “number one risk factor for those over 50 in all forms of use.” And while the dip on the baseball field or the occasional cigarette may not seem like a big deal, studies have shown that even this type of usage can increase your chances of developing oral cancer.
Another factor that could increase your risk of oral cancer is the heavy use of alcohol, though this is mainly in conjunction with tobacco use. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, “[t]hose who both smoke and drink, have a 15 times greater risk of developing oral cancer than others.” This significant increase is mainly due to the nutritional deficiencies that result from heavy drinking, which “lower the body’s natural ability to use antioxidants to prevent the formation of cancers.” While the OCF defines heavy drinking as consistently consuming more than 21 standard drinks each week, significant alcohol usage is the second largest risk for the development of oral cancer.
Although using tobacco and alcohol are factors we are able to easily monitor, the third largest risk factor for oral cancer comes from a specific strain of HPV or the human papilloma virus. Therefore, anyone old enough to have engaged in sexual behaviors which are capable of transferring this very ubiquitous virus needs to be screened annually for oral cancer.
While a way to completely prevent oral cancer has not yet been discovered, there are a number of ways that you can increase your protection against this disease. The most important way to help reduce your risk is to stop using tobacco, or better yet, do not start. The Mayo Clinic also has other recommendations – drink alcohol only in moderation, eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, avoid sun exposure to lips through consistent usage of sunblock, and continue to see your dentist regularly. The OCF has found that the decline in cases of oral cancer at the front of the mouth – typically associated with alcohol and tobacco – has fallen as usage of these has continued to dwindle.
The second biggest way to help protect your body from the dangerous effects of oral cancer is to be aware and on the lookout for early stages and symptoms. One of the biggest signs of the early stages of oral cancer are mixed red and white patches that last more than two weeks. Healthline.com especially calls out red patches that look and feel velvety – in 75-90% of cases, these patches are often precancerous. They recommend that you do not ignore any vividly colored spots in your mouth. If you notice these patches, or sores on your tongue that have been around for more than two weeks, be sure to see your dentist right away. By taking a few minutes each month to scan your mouth – gums, tongue, cheeks, tonsils, and the back of your throat you can help protect yourself from oral cancer.
While oral cancer and the risk factors associated with it seem pretty self-explanatory, knowing the possible risk factors and the early signs for this disease may save your life. It is important to always be on the lookout for any signs of development, and if you find any possible issues, please be sure to see your dentist right away!
For help on proper at-home oral cancer screening check out the introduction to oral cancer
- Oral cancer facts.
- The alcohol connection.
- Proper nutrition.
- More facts about mouth cancer.
- Mayo Clinic – Mouth cancer.
- 5 pictures of mouth cancer
- Susan G. Komen.
- World No Tobacco Day, 31 May 2018.