The Oral Cancer Pandemic & How You Can Keep Yourself Safe

Once upon a time, oral cancer was a disease limited largely to tobacco users and heavy drinkers. For all others, the risks were thought to be very low, and the rate of disease remained fairly steady.

And then it started going up. And fast.

How fast?

Between 1974 and 2007, cases of white men with oral cancer shot up by 225%.

At the same time, there was a five fold increase in young adults with oral cancer.

Incidence has especially skyrocketed for women. In 1950, for every 6 men who developed oral cancer, only one woman did. Today, that ratio has narrowed to 2 : 1.

What happened?

HPV – human papilloma virus. This sexually transmitted virus, most known for causing cervical cancer, is now a major cause of oral cancer. Over half of us are at risk for contracting HPV at some point in our lives.

Perhaps you saw the recent episode of Dr. Oz dealing with these issues. If you missed it, you can watch it here – and I highly recommend that you do. He gives an excellent, plain-language overview of the issue, including discussion of warning signs/early symptoms and demonstrations of the different exams your dentist should perform so that if you do develop cancer, it can be caught and treated as early as possible.

As a rule, I screen each of my adult patients for cancer once a year using a tool called VELscope. This technology lets us look beneath the mouth’s soft tissues for lesions and abnormal growths that may indicate beginning oral cancers. VELscope testing is completely non-invasive and painless. We just aim a blue excitation light at the tissues and see how they respond: healthy areas appear fluorescent and problem areas, dark. I’ve used this device in my practice for several years now – not as an “extra” but as an essential.

If VELscope detects a problem, the next thing we do is an oral CDX brush test, which Dr. Oz’s guest dentist describes as a “pap smear for the mouth.” This procedure, too, is non-invasive and painless. We merely use a special brush to take a sample of cells from the problem area(s), save them on a slide and send them to a lab for analysis.

You can see these early detection methods demonstrated in Part 4 and Part 5 of the Dr. Oz video – screening tools that help save lives by letting us find the cancer early enough for effective treatment.

Of course, the best course of action is to prevent the cancer from occurring in the first place. Key things you can do to lower your risk:

  • Be sure your dentist gives you an oral cancer screening at least once a year if not at every visit. If he or she doesn’t – or if you’re not sure – ask for one.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • If you smoke or chew tobacco, quit. (And if you don’t, don’t start.)
  • Practice safer sex. Always use condoms and/or dental dams, or completely abstain from oral sex.

Also be aware of these warning signs and contact your dentist immediately if you develop one or more of them:

  • A white or red patch in your mouth, or a sore that doesn’t heal within two weeks
  • Sore throat or ear pain, typically on just one side of the head, that doesn’t go away within two weeks
  • A lump in your neck
  • Voice changes or hoarseness that last more than a week
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