Oral cancer prevention begins with you

By Casey L. Daniel, Ph.D.
Posted 4/26/19

What could be better than a cure for cancer? How about not needing one?

This is a central theme of Alabama’s first annual Oral Cancer Awareness Month this April, and with good reason, as the …

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Oral cancer prevention begins with you

Posted

What could be better than a cure for cancer? How about not needing one?

This is a central theme of Alabama’s first annual Oral Cancer Awareness Month this April, and with good reason, as the majority of oral and oropharyngeal cancers are preventable. The parts of the body included in these categories of cancer are the lips, inside lining of lips and cheeks, teeth, gums, the tongue, bottom of the mouth under the tongue, bony roof of the mouth (hard palate), back part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate), tonsils, and side and back walls of the throat.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 53,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in 2019 and 10,860 people will die of these cancers. Men are more than twice as likely as women to develop these cancers, and rates of oropharyngeal cancer among men in the U.S. are now higher than rates of cervical cancer among women.

So just where does Alabama rank when it comes to oropharyngeal cancer? Well, certainly not where Alabamians want to be. In the U.S., Alabama has the fifth highest rate of oropharyngeal cancer and ranks seventh in oropharyngeal cancer deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oral cancers may not receive as much attention as some other deadly cancers, but they need it. This is what led USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute, along with the Oral Health Office of the Alabama Department of Public Health, to write a proclamation declaring April 2019 as the first Oral Cancer Awareness Month in Alabama. The proclamation was recently signed into effect by Governor Kay Ivey. It has since become a statewide initiative with almost 20 collaborating organizations engaged in raising awareness about oral cancer and how it can be prevented or detected early.

What are the biggest risk factors? (1) Tobacco: Smokers are six times more likely to develop oral cancer; (2) Alcohol: Frequent and heavy alcohol use can increase the risk of oral cancer by six times; (3) Human papillomavirus (HPV): It causes about 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers, but HPV vaccination can reduce oral HPV infection by 90 percent.

The most important actions you can take to fight oral and oropharyngeal cancers are:

• Stop (or don’t start) tobacco use of any kind.

• Limit alcohol to moderate use.

• Get yourself or your child vaccinated for HPV.

• Examine your mouth regularly for unusual sores, swelling, or areas of red or white lesions.

• Ask your dental provider to screen you for oral cancers (and see him or her regularly).

These last two steps are important because early detection of oral cancers is key. Survival rates for these cancers should be much higher, but these cancers are frequently not diagnosed until they are advanced and more difficult to treat. I urge you to be proactive in your oral health and spread the word about the importance of oral cancer awareness and the steps people can take to protect themselves. This April, and every month, we encourage you to “Watch Your Mouth!”

Casey L. Daniel, Ph.D., is assistant professor of oncologic sciences at USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute and chairs the Alabama Comprehensive Cancer Center Coalition, a statewide network of physicians, organizations, medical groups, cancer survivors and interested individuals dedicated to reducing the impact and burden of cancer on Alabama.