The group Cancer Research UK released some troubling news recently. Oral cancer rates have increased over the last two decades, according to their analysis. And the rate of increase isn’t small — oral cancers are now 68 percent more common than they were just 20 years ago.
Researchers are now devoting their resources to figuring out what’s to blame for this drastic uptick in mouth cancer occurrences, what can be done to reign these numbers in, and how to improve oral cancer survival rates.
What is Oral Cancer?
The terms oral cancer and mouth cancer refer to any cancer that affects the lips, gums, tongue, palate, tonsils and part of the throat known as the oropharynx. Mouth cancer symptoms can vary, but telltale signs include ulcers or sores, unexplained lumps on the lips or neck, and white or red patches inside the mouth.
Survival rates for oral cancers totally depend on the location of the cancer and how far it’s progressed at the time of diagnosis. Like any type of cancer, the sooner it’s caught, the better a patient’s chances for complete recovery. If it goes unchecked, mouth cancers can spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body, growing more serious as it spreads.
What Causes Mouth Cancer?
Scientists believe that mouth cancers are highly preventable. That’s because the main contributing factors that cause these cancers are lifestyle related: smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, and poor diets that are low in fruits and vegetables. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact causes, but these habits strongly increase your risk of getting mouth cancer.
Cancer researchers are now seeking to understand what has caused the rates of mouth cancer to increase so drastically. Smoking rates in the UK, where the study was based, have actually fallen. From 1950 to 2010, the percentage of smokers dropped from over 60% of men to around 20%, and from around 40% to under 20% of women. Since one of the main risk factors is declining, it’s surprising that oral cancer rates would be doing the opposite. Alcohol consumption, however, has generally increased in the UK, and the prevalence of healthy diets has remained generally stable.
A fourth risk factor is the human papilloma virus, or HPV. Though most commonly associated with cervical cancer, new research is also linking HPV to mouth cancers. HPV is incredibly common — some estimates say that 8 out of 10 people will have the infection at some point in their life, though in most cases, the body fights it off naturally and people aren’t even aware that they had contracted it. Because of this, as well as taboos around discussing STDs, it’s difficult to study the rates of HPV and whether they have increased or decreased over the years. But the HPV vaccine is certainly a helpful tool when it comes to prevention.
The prevalence of some risk factors have increased, some have decreased, and others have remained steady. With this information, it’s difficult for researchers to say exactly why mouth cancer is becoming so much more common. Cancer Research UK and other public health groups are focusing on discouraging risk factor behaviors and spreading awareness of their ties to mouth cancer.
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My name is Jeremy Rourke. I’m part of a family of dentists with my father, brother, cousin and nephew also being dentists. I won a University of Sydney Dental Alumni prize for being the top student in my year and graduated with Honours in 1971. I have been a Registered dentist for over 40 years. In that time I have created a few “firsts” in my efforts to stay ahead.