Topics in Dentistry

Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is the sixth most deadly cancer, but most people aren’t aware of that fact, or of the disease.

Each year in the US alone, approximately 30,000 individuals are newly diagnosed with oral cancer. If you add throat cancer to the number (which have the same risk factors), that number will increase to about 42,000 people. The death rate from oral cancer is very high; about half those diagnosed will not survive more than five years. While these statistics are alarming, this high death rate is directly related to two factors. These may be directly influenced by your choices.

The first is to be aware. Knowing that lifestyle choices you make, such as the use of tobacco and other risk factors listed, are causes of this disease, is part of that process. Approximately 75% of all oral cancer patients are tobacco users. Avoidance of risk factors greatly reduces your chance of developing oral and throat cancers. Knowing the signs and symptoms of the disease is also part of awareness. It is one that will help you decide to seek professional advice should you recognize symptoms in yourself.

Early detection is the second factor that will reduce your risk. Once knowledgeable, you will wish to engage in a regular annual screening to look for signs and symptoms at your doctor’s office, ensuring early detection. Oral cancer can be caught early, even as a pre-cancer. With early detection, survival rates are high, and side effects from treatment are at their lowest. These screenings are painless, quick, and inexpensive. Like other screenings you engage in such as cervical, skin, prostate, colon, and breast examinations, oral cancer screenings are an effective means of finding cancer at its early, highly curable stages. Make them part of your annual health check-ups.

Dr. LaTocha’s office has invested in the state-of-the-art VELscope® system for early detection of oral cancers. Call us today at (231) 436-7400 to schedule your simple, painless, and inexpensive oral cancer examination.

Risk Factors Factors you can control

1. Tobacco use. In all its forms, tobacco is the largest contributor to the development of oral or mouth cancers. Not using tobacco is the single most important thing you can do to avoid oral cancers.

2. Excessive alcohol consumption. More than 15 alcoholic beverages per week may put you at greater risk. If you must drink, do so in moderation.

3. The combined use of tobacco and alcohol. This significantly increases the risk of oral cancer more than either by itself.

4. Excessive unprotected exposure to sun. Unprotected exposure to sun will increase the likelihood of lip cancers. Use at least SPF 30 sunblock on your lips.

5. Low intake of fruits and vegetables. A diet that does not contain the protective nutrients of these foods increases the risk of developing a variety of illnesses including oral cancer.

6. Use of betel nut and bedis. When chewed or smoked, these are causative agents of mouth cancers. Avoid their use.

Risk factors not in your control, or in which control is limited

1. Age. Older individuals tend to develop more diseases in general, including oral cancer, as their immune system becomes less efficient.

2. HPV viral infection. Increasing numbers of young, non-smoking individuals are being diagnosed with oral cancer. The most likely causative factor is HPV viral infection, the same virus responsible for more than 95% of all cervical cancer. It can also be a co-factor and facilitator in tobacco induced cancers. While testing for the virus at the time of cervical examinations and PAP smears is becoming more common, individuals carrying this virus are not likely to know that they have it, as there are no outward symptoms. Currently there are no preventative or avoidance measures that will prevent sexual transmission of this virus. However, limiting the number of sexual partners decreases your risk of contracting the virus.

3. Race, ethnicity, and economics. There are socioeconomic factors that influence the development of cancers in different groups of people. For instance, while not related to biology, African Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer 2 to 1 over other races. In addition, people who live in areas with poor access to healthcare, or for economic reasons do not routinely visit a dentist or doctor, are also at increased risk.

4. Recurrence. Previous head and neck cancer patients have a higher risk of a cancer recurrence which may occur in the mouth or other areas of the aero-digestive tract.

5. Gender. Statistically males get oral cancer more often than females. Again, this is not related to biology but lifestyle issues.

This information was taken from the publication Oral Cancer: What you need to know, distributed by the Oral Cancer Foundation.