This week is Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. Oral cancers (also called mouth, tongue, tonsil or throat cancer) comprise the majority of all head and neck cancers.
The Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF) estimates approximately 42,000 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2013.
When found in the early stages of development, oral cancers have an 80-90 percent survival rate. Unfortunately, the majority of oral cancers are discovered at a late stage, when the cancer has metastasized to another location.
Since oral cancer can grow without producing noticeable pain or symptoms, what can you do to reduce your risk and improve your chances for early detection?
- Cut out drinking and smoking – The most recognized risk factor for oral cancer is the heavy use of tobacco (including cigarettes, chewing tobacco or snuff) and alcohol. Combined, these two culprits cause at least 75 percent of head and neck cancers, reports the National Cancer Institute.
- Practice safe sex – More and more oral cancer patients are young, healthy, non-smoking individuals. Why? Exposure to the HPV-16 virus (human papilloma virus) is becoming a prominent risk factor for oral cancer. This is the same virus that is responsible for the majority of cervical cancers in women. In oral cancer patients, the virus shows up primarily in the base of the tongue, back of the throat, and tonsils.
- Get screened – Dentists are often the first line of defense against oral cancer, says the OCF. Yet, published studies show that currently less than 15 percent of those who visit a dentist regularly report having had an oral cancer screening. Until oral, head and neck screenings become the norm in the medical and dental communities, take control of your health and ask for a screening each year.
As oral cancer incidence continues to rise, early discovery of the disease becomes more crucial. To improve early detection, two things need to happen: (1) increased public awareness and (2) the institution of a national program for oral cancer screenings.
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Learn more about oral cancer risk factors.