Are You at Risk for Oral Cancer?

October 22, 2018

Young man with sensitive tooth ache problem

The short answer to the question, "am I at risk for oral cancer?" is "yes". 

That’s not meant to be unduly frightening, it’s simply a fact: oral cancer — and, really, all cancer — is not guaranteed to be selective in who it attacks. That’s why it’s vital for all of us to take self- and professional examinations seriously, and to educate ourselves on what to look out for, to make sure if it affects us, we’ll know about early enough to effectively treat it.

That being said, there are some particular risk factors that increase the likelihood that oral cancer may strike. So, if any of the following apply to you or someone you love, be sure that a visual examination by a dentist is part of your semiannual healthcare routine without exception. That’s your best chance of catching oral cancer early.

Who you are

As with many cancers, the chances of facing oral cancer increase based on certain demographic factors:

  • Age - The average age at which oral cancer is diagnosed is 62, and over two-thirds of those being treated are over the age of 55.
  • Gender - Oral and oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed more often in men than women by a ratio of two to one.
  • Family history of oral cancer - While oral cancer is not (yet) directly linked to a genetic cause, it does seem to aggregate in families, and a family history of the disease often precedes early onset.
  • Personal history of cancer - Regrettably, if you’ve previously battled any sort of cancer, your risk of developing another cancer increases.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) - This common sexually transmitted infection has been linked with an increased risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer, and the number of instances has been on the rise.

What you do

While we can’t change who we are or what medical issues we’re already facing, some of the risk factors connected to oral cancer are very much in our control.

  • Tobacco - The use of tobacco in any form is easily the greatest preventable cause of oral cancer. Tobacco is full of carcinogens that are readily absorbed through the soft tissue throughout the lips, gums, mouth, tongue, throat, and sinuses, making users six times more likely to develop oral cancer. Approximately 90 percent of those diagnosed with oral cancer are tobacco users.
  • Heavy use of alcohol - While moderate use of alcohol has not been clinically connected to oral cancer, 70 percent of those diagnosed with the disease are considered “alcohol abusers”, which is defined as 21 or more drinks on average each week.
  • Tobacco and alcohol together - Importantly, researchers have found that these two substances dramatically compound the danger of each alone. This is likely due to the dehydrating effects of alcohol on the soft tissue of the mouth, which leaves this tissue even more susceptible to the impact of tobacco use. And, for the overwhelming majority of oral cancer patients, the two are regularly used together.
  • Betel quid and areca nut - While not common in the United States, the chewing of these substances is very popular in other countries (especially southeast Asia) and may be carried over by immigrants to this country. They contain many of the same harmful substances found in tobacco and are similarly connected to a higher risk for oral cancer.
  • Exposure to sunlight - We know that too much sun can lead to skin cancer, but sun exposure on the lips can similarly lead to oral cancer as well. If you’re going to be out in the sun, don’t forget to use a lip balm that includes adequate SPF protection along with your normal sunscreen application everywhere else.
  • Poor oral health - Failing to routinely, effectively clean your mouth will lead to a buildup of harmful bacteria and increased chance of infection. This, in turn, increases the chances of harboring a harmful virus or of chronic sores becoming cancerous over time.

Other risk factors

Beyond the major factors described above, other less common but equally concerning factors include:

  • Family history of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Weakened immune system
  • Graft-versus-host disease (a potential complication of tissue transplantation)
  • Lichen planus (a chronic inflammatory condition that affects mucous membranes inside your mouth)

Again, if any of the risk factors above apply to you, you need to have a dentist examine your mouth for any signs of oral cancer. This type of cancer is very treatable and the five-year survival rate is 65 percent. However, with early detection, that rate jumps to 84 percent, so the earlier the disease is identified, the better.

Even if you’re not currently at significant risk for oral cancer, a semiannual visit to the dentist makes sense, both for your overall oral health and to make sure you’re not on the minority side of all the averages that researches rely on to determine lists of risk factors like this one.

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