Hey, 20-Somethings: Oral Cancer Is A Thing

The 20-something years are often the life season in which young adults are pretty sure they know everything. It is the decade of making independent life decisions in areas such as college, career, and relationships. Unfortunately, many 20-somethings fail to heed the advice they learned in early childhood about the importance of seeing a dentist, believing they are impervious to the serious consequences of neglecting oral care. Further, the warnings they received about smoking (or chewing) tobacco are sometimes brushed aside. This contributes to the current phenomenon of increased oral cancer diagnoses among this age group. Another surprising factor that places 20-somethings at risk of oral cancer is a sexually transmitted disease. If you are a 20-something, you may want to pull up your dentist's name on your smartphone and hit "call." It's a good time for an exam. 

Oral cancer 101

If you are a 20-something, you may think of oral cancer as the territory of longtime tobacco-chewing baseball players. However, consider these facts:

  • 40,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed every year

  • 40% of today's oral cancer cases are 20-somethings, who, incidentally, are likely to be non-smokers

  • men are twice as liable to develop this type of cancer than women

  • cases of oral cancer have increased 113% over the past 40 years among Caucasians, while cases declined by 52% among African-Americans

  • only 50% of those diagnosed today will be alive in 5 years

  • the high death rate is due to late detection; 63% of oral cancer cases are not diagnosed until late stages of the disease

To use today's language: oral cancer among 20-somethings is indeed a "thing." Note that most cases aren't diagnosed until the disease is already quite progressed; routine dental visits are indeed that important.

HPV link

Why are so many young adults falling prey to oral cancer? The answer may lie in its connection to the human papillomavirus or HPV. This sexually transmitted disease, often leading to cervical cancer, is on the rise in this age group, and poor oral health puts one at risk for the virus to enter the body. In fact, the leading cause of oral cancer is HPV16, one of the strains of this virus. Canker sores, bleeding gums, and abscesses--all coincident with poor oral health--allow easy access for the virus. Once the virus enters the mouth, cancer may develop. 

Prevention is possible--for both conditions

Prevention of HPV is possible in three ways:

  1. Abstinence from sexual activity (100% successful)

  2. Barrier methods during sexual activity (95%)

  3. Vaccination (91-100%)

While avoiding HPV will not necessarily prevent you from developing oral cancer, it just might.

The following measures are recommended to prevent oral cancer:

  1. Don't use tobacco, or quit if you do.

  2. Don't drink, or do so in moderation. Alcohol makes skin cells in your mouth vulnerable to oral cancer.

  3. Eat your veggies (and your fruits). The antioxidants in these foods help prevent cancer.

  4. Sunscreen your lips. Sunburn can cause lip cancer

The final recommendation for preventing oral cancer is the one you learned in early childhood: see your dentist regularly. A dental exam includes a routine screening for oral cancer. If caught early, your prognosis is vastly better than if it isn't diagnosed until late in its progression. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments provide opportunity for recovery. If caught early, success rates for oral cancer treatment range from 75-93%. 

If you are a 20-something who has figured there's no reason to go to the dentist unless something hurts, you're wrong. Make an appointment for a cleaning and exam right away, and go every six months. Because oral cancer is a "thing" for your age group, take this advice seriously.