By Dr. Kenneth Yorgey
Oral cancer? It won’t happen to me. Only old alcoholic men get this disease. Do you ever say or think this? If you do, you need to know how wrong you are. There are approximately 37,000 new cases of oral cancer diagnosed each year and the rate of occurrence has been increasing dramatically. One person per hour, 24 hours a day, dies from oral cancer. While tobacco and alcohol use are well known risk factors for oral cancer, a new factor has arrived on the scene which is creating the incidence to rise. It is the HPV virus, the same one known to cause cervical cancer.
Although many believe that smokeless (chewing) tobacco is safer than smoking, you are only trading one cancer (lung) for another (oral). Chewing tobacco has increased the rate of oral cancer, pancreatic cancer, and periodontal disease along with the chronic infections it produces which may have a link to heart disease. Due to lifestyle changes of more women tobacco users and changes in sexual activities, the rate of 6 men to every woman with oral cancer is now 2 to 1.
HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease which infects 40 million Americans. There are over 120 strains of HPV; most of which are thought to be harmless, but 1% of infected people have HPV-16, the strain which is the primary causative agent of cervical, anal, and penis cancer. This strain will also cause oral cancer, and is transmitted by direct skin to skin contact. HPV induced oral cancer is usually found in the back of the throat and base of the tongue. These areas are very difficult to observe during routine examination and the disease can go undetected for some time. The 5 year survival rate for oral cancer is no better than 50%. Cervical, testicular, thyroid, skin (malignant melanoma), and Hodgkin’s lymphoma all have better survival rates. Caught early, the survival rate is 80 to 90%; however, most oral cancers are found at a late stage.
New technology which we have incorporated into our office now allows us to test for the presence of HPV in the mouth and to identify the stain. This early detection permits the positive patient to be followed more closely so if a problem arises, it can be found early. Please call our office if you want further information on this test or more information on oral cancer.
A great web site for even more information is oralcancerfoundation.org.