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Oral cancer may not get the media attention of other cancers, but worldwide almost half a million people are diagnosed with the disease each year. While smoking is still a risk factor, infection with HPV is now a leading cause of oral cancer.

When you think of different types of cancer, oral cancer may not be the first thing that comes to your mind. There may not be as much public awareness about oral cancer as there is about cancers, such as prostate or breast cancer. But according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, over 43,000 people in the Unites States are diagnosed with oral cancer each year. Worldwide that number is much higher.

Over 450,000 people throughout the world are diagnosed with the disease each year.

In the U.S, it will take the lives of one person every 24 hours.

But oral cancer does not only take lives; it may steal a person’s ability to eat, speak and function normally. Not only can the disease cause disabling effects, treatment may sometimes lead to problems eating and talking. 

Human Papillomavirus and Other Causes of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer can involve cancer in the mouth including the cheeks, roof of the mouth and tongue. It may also develop on the lips or gums. Cancer that develops on the back of the oropharynx, which is the back of the throat, is also classified as oral cancer.

In the past, oral cancer was thought to be mainly caused by cigarette smoking. Most people who were diagnosed with oral cancer were older men who smoked.

But the face of oral cancer is changing.

According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of American, two-thirds of people diagnosed with oral cancer are over the age of 55, but that number may be changing. Oral cancer is affecting younger people. One reason may be due to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, which is associated with some types of cancer. There are different strains of HPV, and not all strains are associated with cancer. The strain associated with cancer, such as oral and cervical, is HPV16.

If the oral cavity becomes infected with HPV through sexual contact, changes in the cell’s DNA can occur. In some cases, the cells continue to change and may grow out of control leading to oral cancer. Cancer related to oral HPV typically involves the oropharynx. The fastest growing population of people developing cancer of the oropharynx are people between the ages of 25 and 50 according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. 

In addition to HPV, tobacco use is still one of the main risk factors for oral cancer. People who are heavy alcohol drinkers are also at an increased risk of developing oral cancer.

The Need for Oral Cancer Screening

As with most types of cancer, the earlier oral cancer is diagnosed, the better the prognosis tends to be. Screening often only takes a few minutes and can be done during a routine dental exam.

The American Dental Association recommends all adults over the age of 18 have a routine oral cancer screening exam every year.

An exam is quick and painless. Your dentist will look inside your month and examine the inside of your cheeks, the roof of your mouth and floor of the mouth, along with your tongue. The gums, lips and throat will also be examined.

Some dentists also use special instruments, which can identify changes in the tissue in the mouth. It usually involves examining the oral cavity with a hand held device, which uses varied technology to identify abnormal changes in the cells.  If a growth is found, it will likely be removed, so the tissue can be examined under a microscope to check for cancerous cells.

In addition to having an oral cancer screening yearly, if you develop a sore or growth in the mouth, which does not go away in two weeks, you should see your doctor or dentist for a screening. Although many growths in the mouth are benign and nothing to worry about, an oral cancer screening can be lifesaving.

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