Oral cancer is the largest group of those cancers which fall into the head and neck cancer category. Common names for it include such things as mouth cancer, tongue cancer, tonsil cancer, and throat cancer. Approximately 40,000 people in the US will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2012 (and more than 640,000 cases worldwide)
The primary risk factors for oral cancer are:
- Use of tobacco (either smoking or chewing tobacco)
- Use of alcohol
- Exposure to the HPV-16 virus, the same one which is responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers in women.
In March 2011, while my wife was 5 months pregnant with our son, she was diagnosed with tongue cancer. She had never smoked in her life and drank alcohol only rarely. The tumor tested negative for HPV. She underwent a partial glossectomy and a neck dissection (i.e., 1/4 of her tongue was removed and also lymph nodes to in her neck were removed to check to see if the cancer had spread). Everything looked great after the surgery and that should have been the end of it. (Our son Tristan was born in July 2011 and is doing great)
However in August 2012 my wife had a routine tonsillectomy due to an inflammation that was not responding to antibiotics. Unexpectedly, the surgeon discovered a tumor on one of the tonsils, which tested positive for cancer. She is currently undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
While some think this is a rare cancer, mouth cancer will be newly diagnosed in about 100 new individuals each day in the US alone, and a person dies from oral cancer every hour of every day.
When found at early stages of development, oral cancers have an 80 to 90 % survival rate. Unfortunately at this time, the majority are found as late stage cancers, and this accounts for the very high death rate of about 45% at five years from diagnosis (for all stages combined at time of diagnosis), and high treatment related morbidity in survivors. Late stage diagnosis is not occurring because most of these cancers are hard to discover, it is because of a lack of public awareness coupled with the lack of a national program for opportunistic screenings which would yield early discovery by medical and dental professionals.
Every time you go to the dentist they should do an oral cancer screening of your mouth. The dentist just pokes and prods around in your mouth and examines your tongue. It is painless and takes all of 30 seconds to do. All dentists should be doing it anyway every time you see them--but there's a good chance they'll overlook it. They need to be reminded. So the next time you go to the dentist, ask them for an oral cancer screening. It could save your life.
For more information, please go to the Oral Cancer Foundation website.
*Much of the information for this post was taken from the Oral Cancer Foundation website.