Oral cancer is an umbrella term that includes mouth, tongue, tonsil, and throat cancer — all of which can be life threatening if they aren’t diagnosed early. In fact, someone dies of oral cancer every hour of every day.
If it’s found in the early stages, the survival rate of oral cancer can be as high as 90%. But that number decreases the longer the cancer grows before being spotted, and unfortunately, most oral cancer isn’t discovered until it’s already in the late stages.
Oral Cancer: Surging, or Standing Still?
Reports conflict on whether or not oral cancer rates are growing or staying stationary. A 2016 cancer research analysis shows that in the United Kingdom, oral cancer rates are skyrocketing — they’ve grown more than 50% in the last twenty years. The vast majority of these cases are attributed to lifestyle, and 65% of cases are specifically due to smoking.
However, research in the United States suggests that oral cancer rates are staying steady, having barely budged since the late 90’s. This may in part be due to the rapidity with which American smoking is declining: The percentage of adults who smoke cigarettes is down almost ten percent in the last twenty years.
But whether oral cancer rates are growing or staying put, they certainly aren’t declining. The danger is real, and smoking isn’t the only thing that can increase your risk.
Potential Causes of Oral Cancer
Besides smoking and other tobacco use, which are the most commonly accepted causes of oral cancer, there are lots of other factors that can increase the probability of oral cancer.
Excessive alcohol consumption can be a factor, as well as excessive sun exposure. Of course, family history of cancer plays a part, but that’s not the only genetic tie: Ethnicity can also play a role. In fact, Chinese people have a higher rate of cancer in the nasopharynx than any other ethnicity. Your gender also plays a role, and men are twice as likely as women to develop oral cancer, especially men over 50.
Another major risk factor is HPV, an incredibly common virus with nearly 200 strains, only 9 of which are tied to cancer. As many as 80% of Americans will contract HPV in their lifetime, although most will find that their body’s immune system clears the infection easily. HPV is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the throat, tonsils, back of the tongue, and soft palate.
Although the majority of oral cancer cases are lifestyle-related (for example, tobacco or alcohol use), it is still possible to develop oral cancer due to other factors. Treatment becomes more difficult and the survival rate decreases the later the cancer is discovered, so getting regular oral cancer screenings is crucial.
Luckily, you’re probably didn’t know you’re already getting them. Part of a dentist’s job during a regular cleaning is to observe the mouth and throat and look for signs of oral cancer. We also offer screenings with Velscope, which increases the odds of catching cancer early. Those regular screenings can be key to catching symptoms early and making treatment effective.