Cancer deaths are falling – well, except for a handful of cancer types. Unfortunately, that handful includes cancers of the mouth and throat. Those continue to trend upward, according to the latest annual report from the CDC and prominent cancer organizations.
Analyzing data collected between 2001 and 2017, the researchers found that the death rate for these cancers rose 0.6% each year for men, though it remained stable for women. Cases of oropharyngeal cancer rose, as well, for both sexes: 0.9% for men and 0.5% for women each year.
These are cancers that can affect the tonsils, soft palate (the back part of the roof of your mouth), and back third of the tongue, as well as the throat itself.
Considering that the decline in overall cancer deaths is thanks to fewer people smoking, you’d expect to see a decline in oral cancers, as well. Tobacco use is one of the major risk factors, after all. But this seems to be offset by significant changes in sexual practices that have led to a rise in human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.
According to the CDC, HPV drives roughly 70% of oropharyngeal cancers, with the cancer usually developing years after the initial infection. About 10% of men and 3.6% of women have oral HPV, and while most clear the infection within a year or two, it can persist in some people.
Recent research out of Johns Hopkins points out a number of other factors that can affect the risk of developing an HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer:
Although the researchers confirmed that a higher number of lifetime oral sex partners increased the risk of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, they also found higher risk was linked to an earlier age of having oral sex (under 18), higher oral sex “intensity” (more sex partners over a shorter time) and having oral sex before other kinds of sex.
Of course, the number one thing to do to lower your oral cancer risk is to address any risk factors. If you use tobacco in any form, quit. Go easy on alcohol. Practice safer sex. Another important action to take: visit your dentist regularly – presuming they do as we do at Fremont Natural Dentistry, where oral cancer screening is a part of your regular oral exams.
For here’s the thing with oral cancer: When it’s caught early, it’s relatively easy to treat, and your prognosis is excellent. You just aren’t likely to spot emerging problems on your own. There are few noticeable symptoms until the cancer is fairly well advanced – and much harder to treat. This is why the death rate for oropharyngeal cancers is so much higher than for some other cancers, including cervical cancer, testicular cancer, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
This segment from a Colorado news broadcast shows how these screenings are done in an office like ours:
Together, the conventional visual plus palpation exam combined with Velscope technology helps us catch any emerging problems as early as possible. If we do, we can then connect you with a specialist for formal diagnosis and treatment.
Again, the earlier we catch it, the less likely it is that you’ll become a statistic in the current wrong-way trend.