Oral cancer kills one person every hour of every day, states the Oral Cancer Foundation. Unknown to most, the leading risk factor is exposure to the HPV 16 virus (human papilloma virus version 16). This is the same virus that is one of the risk factors for cervical cancer in women. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more men are being diagnosed with oropharyngeal (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils) cancer related to HPV than women. Therefore, this cancer is becoming prevalent in the young, male, non-smoking population ages 25-50 years old, versus the historical smoking age group of 50 and older.
The areas that are included in the term oral cancer include the lips, mouth, tongue, and oropharynx. According to the National Cancer Institute, a little over 43,500 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer in the United States this year. Early detection is the key to survival. When the cancer is detected early, the survival rate is 80 to 90 percent, but at later stages the survival rates drop to 20 to 30 percent. Most detection is found during regular dental exams or routine medical physicals. However, there are some signs that can be recognized to promote a visit to the dentist or physician. The most obvious indicators requiring an oral cancer screening are seen on the lips, inside cheeks, on and under the tongue, and in the back along the throat. Red, white, or sore lesions that do not resolve over the course of two weeks should be looked at by a dental or medical professional. Some advanced indicators that warrant a dental or medical exam include numbness in any area of the mouth; one sided ear, jaw, or mouth pain; difficulty swallowing; or lumps that develop in the mouth or neck. Any of these symptoms can be the result of conditions not related to cancer as well; therefore, an exam with a dentist or physician should be pursued to determine the proper diagnosis.
As mentioned earlier, the leading risk factor of oral cancer is HPV 16 virus. Other risk factors include tobacco and alcohol use, and prolonged exposure to the sun. Tobacco products such a cigarettes, chew tobacco, and cigars in combination with heavy alcohol use has a strong link to oral cancer incidence. Whether or not a person is exposed to the most common risk factors, the Oral Cancer Foundation recommends every adult have a screening by a medical or dental professional once a year as a part of their routine check-ups.
• Dr. Rashmi (Rush) Bhatnagar, DMD, MPH, can be contacted at (480) 598-5900 or visit www.BellaVistaDentalCare.com.