Unhealthy choices drive up cases of mouth cancer

November 29, 2016 Providence Health Team

An analysis of health records in the United Kingdom reveals a startling jump in cases of oral cancer. Over the last 20 years, according to Cancer Research UK, cases of oral cancer jumped 68 percent.

Oral cancer is an umbrella term for a variety of cancers, including cancer of the lips, tongue, gums, palate, tonsils and oropharynx, or middle part of the throat.

Researchers say the increase applied to men and women, young and old, with the sharpest jump in rates for women. They say nine of 10 cases were linked to lifestyle risk factors, especially smoking. Other risk factors include:

  • Drinking alcohol
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Infections from the human papilloma virus, or HPV

HPV is most commonly known as a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer. But it also can cause cancer in the back of the throat.

An Oxford University Hospital oral surgeon told Cancer Research UK he thinks oral cancers are not discovered quickly enough.

“Other cancers, like breast and testicular cancer, have champions and celebrities who raise awareness of the disease. But we don’t have that for mouth cancer,” said Satheesh Prabhu, M.D. “We need to do more to make the public aware of the signs and symptoms of this type of cancer. They need to know what to look out for and the importance of getting things checked.”

Oral cancer diagnoses in the U.K. and U.S.

Early detection is critical for treating and surviving oral cancer.

Dr. Prabhu says people diagnosed in the early stages of the disease “have a 70 to 90 percent chance of surviving for five years or more.” He said health care providers, including dentists, should become more knowledgeable about the range of mouth cancers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s page on oral cancer lists figures from 2012, when approximately 40,000 new cases of oral cancer were diagnosed and 9,000 deaths attributed to the disease.

The good news is that people can change the high-risk behaviors that cause most cases of oral cancer. Like Cancer Research UK, the CDC cited these factors:

  • Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking and use of smokeless tobacco
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

The CDC also cited HPV, the most common STD. There is a vaccination that can protect against HPV when given at the right age. The CDC recommends the vaccine for boys and girls ages 11 to 12.

If you feel or notice something unusual in your mouth, don’t delay seeing a health care provider. You can find a Providence provider here.

Further reading

We’ve written previously about oral cancers:

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research offers extensive resources on oral cancer for patients and for health professionals. It includes public awareness campaign literature and information about clinical trials.

Cancer Research UK described its analysis of oral cancer cases using personal stories on its science blog: Talking about mouth cancer is important. The organization’s press release on the analysis is here: Mouth cancer rates soar over 20 years.

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