The Importance of Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer Awareness

Contributed by: Dr. Zachary Brian, UNC Adams School of Dentistry

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month and serves as an important reminder for all of us to amplify the discussion of oral and oropharyngeal cancer. In particular, we should emphasize the importance of regular screenings, public education, and awareness of risk factors and preventive measures such as behavior modification and vaccination.

The Importance of Regular Screenings

The incidence of oropharyngeal cancer is on the rise, notably those cases linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). According to the American Cancer Society, there will be approximately 58,450 new cases of oral and/or oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed this year, tragically resulting in 12,230 deaths. Put into context, this means that this year alone, more than one person will die every hour in the US due to oral and/or oropharyngeal cancer. Alarmingly, roughly 70% of all oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV.

This month is a great time to remind ourselves to schedule an oral cancer screening by a dentist because dental professionals are uniquely positioned to detect early signs of oropharyngeal cancer during routine examinations. It is also beneficial to know your risks and the signs of these cancers so you can perform self-examinations in between your dentist appointments.

Things to look for in a self-examination include:

- Mouth sores (including any lumps or bumps that were not there previously)
- Mouth discoloration (red, white, or red/white areas)
- Any lesions (lumps or bumps) or color changes that persist for 2 weeks or more
- Ongoing throat discomfort
- Difficulty swallowing
- Voice changes (hoarseness)

You should consult with a physician or dentist immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.

Risk Factors for Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer

A number of behavioral and genetic factors can increase your risk of developing oral and/or oropharyngeal cancer.

Significant risk factors include:

- HPV infection
- Smoking
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Familial history of cancer

It is important to note that concurrent (at the same time) use of tobacco products and alcohol consumption increases your risk of developing oral and/or oropharyngeal cancer by five times. Awareness and understanding of these risks can lead to early detection and potentially prevent the development of oral and oropharyngeal cancer.

A Call to Action

Combating oral and oropharyngeal cancer requires a comprehensive approach that includes education, lifestyle change, HPV vaccination, and adherence to regular screening protocols. By fostering greater public awareness and encouraging active participation in health screenings, we can achieve earlier detection and significantly improve outcomes for those affected. Remember, oral and oropharyngeal cancer is highly treatable — and early diagnosis leads to much better outcomes and treatment success.


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