Oral Cancer: A Dangerous Disease on the Rise
Lisa Bourdon-Krause could not believe her eyes. While eating lunch in her car, she’d felt the same dull ache in her mouth that had been bothering her for weeks whenever she chewed or swallowed. “It wasn’t that painful, so I hadn’t thought much about it,” says the then-30-year-old graphic designer and mom from Bay City, Mich. “But at a red light, I decided to pull my tongue aside and check the rearview mirror to see what was going on back there.” What she saw was a large, ugly white and red spot on one side of her tongue. “I thought, Whoa! What the heck is that?”
Then the light changed, and Bourdon-Krause dismissed the spot as a canker sore. But a month later, the sore was still there when she went for a dental checkup. Her dentist took one look and immediately sent her to an oral surgeon for a biopsy. The diagnosis: oral cancer.
“I was in shock. I had never even heard of oral cancer,” says Bourdon-Krause. Doctors ended up having to remove half her tongue. Bourdon-Krause feared she would never talk again, let alone read a bedtime story to her young son. Fortunately, however, surgeons were able to reconstruct her tongue, and today Bourdon-Krause now talks normally and is cancer-free. Still, many other oral cancer victims are not so lucky.
Know the Facts
Once, a cancer like Bourdon-Krause’s was rare -- especially in women. But the number of oral cancer victims has increased steadily over the last decade, with an alarming 11 percent rise in 2007 alone. The disease is most often caused by smoking and/or drinking heavily. “But we’re seeing a lot more cases in women younger than 35 who have never had either of those habits,” says Dr. Douglas B. Chepeha, an oral cancer expert at the University of Michigan who was also Bourdon-Krause’s surgeon.
So what’s behind the surge in young nonsmokers? Researchers have recently discovered a link between oral cancer and human papilloma virus (HPV), particularly version 16, which is also responsible for most cases of cervical cancer and can be transmitted through oral sex or sexual contact. HPV now accounts for at least 30 percent of all oral cancers (although doctors determined that it was definitely not the cause of Lisa's case). The more oral sex a woman has had with multiple partners, the greater her risk.
The cure rate for oral cancer is up to 90 percent when it’s caught early. But, unfortunately, people tend to ignore the symptoms until the later stages when the cure rate drops to 45 percent. The lesson here: Learn the symptoms and don’t ignore them.
Be on Guard
If you experience any of the following symptoms for more than two weeks, see your dentist, who might take a small biopsy under local anesthetic or refer you to an oral surgeon:
- A sore on your tongue or the inside of your mouth (even if it’s not painful), especially if it’s red or white and then turns red
- Difficulty chewing or moving your jaw
- Any change in swallowing (it hurts or food seems to stick in your throat)
- Any alteration in your voice
- A lingering sore throat that doesn’t get better even with antibiotics
- Persistent ear ache on one side
- A painless hard lump in your neck that grows
Get Checked Regularly
Make sure your yearly dental checkup includes an oral cancer screening. Your dentist should use his hands to check the lymph nodes in your neck, use his eyes and fingers to examine the inside of your mouth and tongue, and pull your tongue forward with gauze to look at the back, as well as around it. “This kind of exam can find 95 percent of all oral cancers,” says Brian Hill, director of The Oral Cancer Foundation. “Still not all dentists do it. If yours doesn’t, you need to find another one.”
Take Preventive Steps
Don’t use tobacco or drink to excess. Consider talking with your health care provider about Gardasil, the vaccine that can prevent HPV infection, although it’s not approved for use in women older than 26. Using condoms during oral sex may be of some benefit, but do not guarantee protection from HPV. For more information, visit the Oral Cancer Foundation website.
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