Most parents have no trouble reminding their children to wear a seatbelt, drive responsibly, or wear a hat and sunscreen when they’re outside. But the behaviors that may contribute to increased risk of oral cancers may move into more uncomfortable territory.
Because April is Oral Cancer Awareness month – and because you’re likely seeing your teen more often than you normally might – now may be the ideal time to broach the subject and discuss those behaviors that put them at risk for oral cancer:
- Chewing tobacco
- Sexual activity
Open and honest conversations about the risk of activities children engage in can be a key factor in mitigating risk. All of these activities are linked to a number of potential risks, including other types of cancers and sexually transmitted diseases, but oral cancer is typically discovered at a later stage and has a lower than five-year survival rate.
Oral cancer can be hard to detect
One of the main reasons oral cancer can have a relatively low survival rate compared to other cancers is late-stage diagnosis. In its early stages, oral cancer can be painless with few physical obvious changes.
While a physician or dentist may see or feel early tissue changes, it’s important to be aware of potential early signs. Symptoms can include a white or red patch of tissue in the mouth or a small, hardened spot that looks like a common canker sore.
There are many benign tissue changes that occur normally in your mouth, and some things as simple as a bite on the inside of your cheek may look like a dangerous tissue change. That’s why it is important to have any sore or discolored area looked at by a professional if it hasn’t healed after 14 days.
Other symptoms include:
- a painless lump or mass inside the mouth or neck
- pain or difficulty swallowing, speaking, or chewing
- any wart-like masses
- extended periods of hoarseness
- any numbness in the oral/facial region
One-sided, persistent earache can also be a warning sign worth investigating.
Oral cancer can be a lifestyle disease
Oral cancer is typically viewed as lifestyle disease, caused by smoking or other tobacco-related products. In fact, one study found that more than 8 out of 10 oral cancer patients were smokers. In addition, the combination of tobacco use and alcohol consumption can increase the risk of oral cancer by 15 times.
As a parent to a teen or pre-teen, it can sometimes be difficult to know whether or how frequently your child might smoke, vape, or drink alcohol. Having frank conversations about the risks of such activities, including oral cancer, can be a first step toward reducing or eliminating the behavior. Because these contributing activities are more easily accessible to adults, oral cancer victims have typically been males over age 60, though the number of younger patients grows with increased trends toward tobacco use.
Despite those key risk factors, the fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population is otherwise healthy, non-smoking individuals under age 60.
Other causes are growing too.
The growth in this segment of younger, non-smokers can be traced to the human papillomavirus (HPV), the single most common sexually transmitted infection.
Oral and oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV are harder to discover than tobacco-related cancers because the symptoms are not always obvious to the patient or the professionals who are looking for it.
They can be very subtle and painless. Though there are many oral cancer screening tests, currently none of them can find HPV-positive oral cancers early. There are oral HPV infection tests on the dental market, and while they will find an oral HPV infection, that is not necessarily an indication that the infection will turn into an oral/oropharyngeal cancer.
As with tobacco-related oral cancers, the best way to screen for HPV-related oral cancer today is through a visual and tactile exam given by a medical or dental professional, along with an oral history about possible signs and symptoms.
Most of the symptoms of a developing HPV-positive infection are discovered by asking questions not using a test, a light, or other device to do so. Like other cancer screenings and examinations, oral cancer screenings are an effective means of finding cancer at its early, highly curable stages.
However, like many other cancer screening techniques, this process is not 100-percent effective, as screening techniques or technology can miss things.
HPV is thought to cause 70 percent of all oropharyngeal cancers in the United States. While other oral cancer-causing activities can be difficult to mitigate – smoking cessation for example, was a $7 billion industry in 2015 – cases caused by HPV are easily preventable with the precautionary HPV vaccine.
The vaccine, offered under the brand name Gardasil 9, specifically protects against HPV types 16 and 18 — the two types that cause 80 percent of cervical cancer cases and reduces the risk of oral cancer as well. The HPV vaccine is routinely recommended for girls and boys ages 11 or 12, although it can be given as early as age 9. It’s ideal for both males and females to receive the vaccine before they have sexual contact and are exposed to HPV, but the vaccine can also be given to adults as old as 26. Recently the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted to expand the recommendation to also include older adults up to age 45 who had not been adequately vaccinated. This age group should make a shared decision with their doctor about the HPV vaccination.
The vaccine itself is considered safe, with the most common side effects being mild fever, headache, and pain and redness in the area where the shot is given.
Why you should consider the HPV vaccine
Approximately 80 percent of Americans will get an HPV infection in their lifetime. The HPV types that cause most cancers have dropped 40 percent among vaccinated women, and it can also reduce risks for men as well.
Here are four more reasons to consider it:
- Prevents cancer-causing infections and pre-cancers
- Provides cancer prevention
- Offers safe, effective, and long-lasting protection
- Provides a simple alternative to oral cancer treatment later in life
Talk to your doctor today about whether the HPV vaccine is right for your child. It’s a simple and effective way to eliminate one of the fastest-growing causes of oral cancer.