New oral cancer trend: Younger faces

April 18, 2013
Recent trends show a rise in oral cancer among younger populations, under the age of 40, because of human papillomavirus, or HPV. The key is to be more aware of the risk factors associated with this disease and be sure to visit a dentist regularly for oral cancer screenings.

Oral cancer is spreading. What was once considered an old man's disease is now crossing over into younger and younger generations. Why? As the world's sixth most common cancer today, 75% of oral cancer is related to lifestyle choices. Furthermore, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, what used to affect six men for every woman, oral cancer now affects one woman to every two men, indicating an increase of the disease among females. With approximately 40,000 to 50,000 people nationwide diagnosed annually, only around 50% of those will be alive in five years.

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"Those aren't good odds," said Dr. Jed Jacobson, chief science officer at Delta Dental of New Mexico. "But even with a statistic like that, there is good news and it's all about prevention and early detection."

Delta Dental is taking steps to help educate and spread awareness about the old and new risk factors associated with oral cancer with the release of a new oral cancer video that explains the new risk factors facing young adults.

In addition to this, the company continues to allocate research dollars to help bring a simple spit test that can help detect oral cancer even before symptoms appear to patients in dental offices. All of these steps look to boost early detection and prevention efforts.

"If oral cancer is detected early, the survival rate increases to around 80%," said Jacobson. "Yet, even with early detection efforts, individuals need to do their part in decreasing their chances of getting oral cancer by making more educated choices."

Although smoking still leads the pack as the primary cause of oral cancer, other factors such as the use of chewing tobacco, excessive drinking, and even prolonged sun exposure can result in a positive diagnosis. Yet, a newer culprit has also begun to take center stage.

More recent trends now show a rise in oral cancer among younger populations, under the age of 40, because of the humanpapilloma virus, or HPV.

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In fact, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology where researchers tracked the HPV status of 271 oral cancer patients found that the incidence of HPV-positive cancers increased by 225% between 1984 and 2004. More recently, according to the American Cancer Society, HPV DNA is now found in about two out of three oral cancers diagnosed each year.

Common symptoms of oral cancer include:

• Loose teeth
• Unresolved sore in the mouth that continues to bleed
• Spot of tissue in the mouth that is white or red in color
• Difficulty swallowing or chewing
• A lump found in the cheek, mouth, or neck
• Persistent earache
• Numbness in the mouth, neck, or face

"Although HPV-positive oral cancers are typically caught in later stages, the upside is that it is not as aggressive as other forms of oral cancer," said Jacobson. "Individuals diagnosed with HPV-positive oral cancer respond better to radiation treatment and typically have better survival rates."

It's estimated that HPV-positive patients have an approximate 60% reduction in their risk of death after their oral cancer diagnosis when compared to HPV-negative patients.

"The key to all of this though is people simply need to be more aware of the risk factors associated with this disease and need to remember that by making certain life choices, they may be putting themselves at a much higher risk," said Jacobson. "It's also important to note that certain types of oral cancer could be the most costliest to treat. This should give everyone even more reason to see their dentist on a regular basis to help in the fight against this growing disease."

SOURCES: Delta Dental, Globe Newswire, and Business Wire.