About 34,000 new U.S. cases of oral cancer are diagnosed each year, and the numbers are rising, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. The foundation has seen an increase in female cases of oral cancer affecting one woman to every two men. The foundation attributes the rise in diagnosis to the increase in alcohol and tobacco consumption.
Oral cancers are rising in women, with HPV sometimes being a causative factor. The importance of preventative medicine cannot be underscored. Pat Folsom, 54, was in for a routine dental exam when they discovered that the lesion in her cheek was cancerous.
“I thought surely this was a mistake. I never smoked, I never drank heavily, and I never had a family history of this. How could this be?”
However, new research suggests that HPV is linked with Oral Cancer. HPV may even be replacing tobacco as the primary cause in the spread of oral cancer. Folsom was shocked when she heard her cancer contained HPV cells.
“I said, ‘What? How is that possible?’” she exclaimed. “But doctors told me that it might have been caused by something I did, years and years ago. It could actually show up later and cause the cancer.”
“HPV causes irregular cells to multiply, the virus thrives in a moist, dark environment,” explains Dr. Tal Morr. Prosthodontists specialize in tooth replacement, jaw restructuring, disease and injuries to the mouth. “The mouth is a perfect place for it to grow.” The virus can be transferred through oral sex causing lesions. Many of those lesions can become cancerous. “It’s something we are very much aware of and look for, especially in women,” he said.
The kind of chronic HPV 16 infection that leads to oral cancer occurs much farther down, near the base of the tongue. Adding to the difficulty, the infection is often “deep down in the crypts of the tonsils,” said Dr. Eric J. Moore, a Mayo Clinic surgeon specializing in such cancers.
Oral cancer has an 80 to 90 percent survival rate when detected early. Dentists check for oral cancer by examining the larynx, tonsils, the cheeks, and the tongue for possible lesions, says the American Dental Association.
“If I tell you that you have HPV in your mouth, it’s not going to help you if I don’t have anything to offer you, and you’re going to live with the anxiety and fear that you might get cancer,” said Dr. Robert I. Haddad, chief of head and neck cancer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Folsom’s oral cancer treatment was successful, however she had to undergo rehab to help her chew and open her mouth wider. She also needed treatment after she broke her collarbone because her bones had become so brittle. “It just snapped one day,” she said with a shrug. “That’s part of the side effects from the radiation. It affects your bones.”
8 Step Oral Cancer Screening