April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Almost 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, and only 57% will be alive in years (although this is an improvement from just 50% over the last 10 years). The rates of death for oral cancer is higher than cancers that we hear about more often, including Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer, and cervical cancer.
Oral cancer is particularly dangerous because it is not often discovered until the disease is advanced. This is because there is not routine screening for this condition (more on that below). Symptoms and pain may not be noticed by patients until the cancer has spread. In addition, a new type of oral cancer, HPV16 may not produce visible lesions at all. Often, oral cancer is not found until it has already spread to lymph nodes in the neck.
Who is at Risk?
Historically, most patients who developed oral cancer were over the age of 40. However, younger patients are now being diagnosed with oral cancer due to the HPV16 virus. Other risk factors for oral cancer include chewing smokeless tobacco, alcohol use, persistent HPV16 viral infection (keep in mind that most with HPV will never go on to develop cancer and the virus will clear on its own), and genetic factors. Those who use tobacco AND drink alcohol are at even further increased risk. A diet low in fruits and vegetables may also play a role, as these are thought to be protective against all types of cancer. Men are more likely to develop oral cancer, but the rates of this cancer in women are going up.
How Can I Monitor My Oral Health?
Pay attention to sores that don’t heal within a couple of weeks. Almost everyone has had a mouth sore (usually called canker sores) at one time or another, but they usually resolve fairly quickly. If you have a mouth sore that persists for more than 14 days, see your doctor or dentist as soon as possible. Other symptoms include a lump on the neck, pain in swallowing, persistent hoarse voice, any wart-like masses, numbness in the face/oral area, or persistent earache. The most common sites in the mouth where oral cancer might develop include tongue and floor of the mouth. Those who chew tobacco might develop cancer between the lip/cheek and lower jaw, where tobacco is often held in the mouth. Cancers related to HPV16 may be found on or near the tonsils or the base of the tongue at the back of the mouth. In addition, regular visits to the dentist (some do an oral cancer screening as part of an exam) are essential. However, not all dentists do this, and it’s important. Be aware of how your mouth and neck usually looks and feels and monitor them for changes.
Want to learn more about oral cancer? Visit the Oral Cancer Foundation’s website here.