Oral Cancer: Not just for smokers anymore

west seattle dentist

Its Oral Cancer awareness month, and we at Dr. Christine Kirchner’s office want you to be informed about this very preventable disease.  This is post number two in a series of three that we are doing to spotlight the disease.  If you missed the first post, go here and read it.  All done?  Ok, here we go onto numbers with the disease and the risk factors involved.

First the numbers:

  • About 40,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year.
  • This is the fifth year in a row that there has been an increase in occurrences.
  • On average, only half of those diagnosed with the disease will survive more than five years.
  • On average, about 100 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed every day in the United states, with 1 person dying from it every hour of every day.
  • When found at early stages, there is an 80-90% survival rate.
  • Most people diagnosed with oral cancer are older, between 50-70.
  • Within the last decade, there has been a rise of younger people contracting the disease.

Why the sudden jump in younger people getting oral cancer?  It involves some of the risk factors involved with the disease.

First off, what is a risk factor?  It is something that may increase your chance of getting a particular disease.  Traditionally, the primary risk factors for oral cancer have always been tobacco use (including smoking and chewing) and heavy alcohol use.  The chance for oral cancer increases significantly if you use both together.  These risk factors, along with some other risk factors (like getting cancer on your lips from sun exposure or not having a balanced diet) explain why oral cancer doesn’t show up in most people until they are older.  The cumulative influence of the risk factors takes a life time to develop.

But wait, you may ask yourself, aren’t more and more people stopping smoking or not even starting altogether?  Yes, if you’ve asked yourself that question, you’re right.  But this is where the other risk factor comes in.  Another risk factor for oral cancer is the Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV for short.  This virus has many forms, about 120 to be exact.  Its most common, and harmless form causes warts on your skin.  Where it begins to concern us is in HPV 16 and 18.  These two forms are sexually transmitted and can lead to cervical cancer.  The other disease they can cause, and yes, you guessed it, is oral cancer.  So the reason that younger people are starting to show a rise in oral cancer isn’t because they are smoking like crazy, but because they are more sexually active.

So, what to do about this very preventable disease?  The Oral Cancer Foundation strongly suggests (of course) not smoking and drinking, but also getting the HPV vaccine.   They have this to say on the matter:

“The Oral Cancer Foundation strongly believes that elimination of a causative

agent (HPV16) by preventing infection from it with a vaccine, will subsequently

prevent any disease that agent may have produced in the protected individual.

This is simple scientific extrapolation, and a view shared by many in the science


Next up in our oral cancer series: How your West Seattle dentist, Dr. Christine Kirchner, and her staff screen you on every oral exam for oral cancer.

For more detailed and technical (and interesting!) information on HPV and its relationship to oral cancer visit The Oral Cancer Foundation’s website.

For information on oral cancer in general, you can visit The Oral Cancer Foundation’s website here.