While incidence rates of other types of cancer continue to fall, oral cancer is spreading at an alarming rate. In fact, Cancer Research UK reports that oral cancer rates have increased by 68% in the United Kingdom during the past 20 years, climbing from 8 to 13 cases per 100,000 people.
For men who are younger than 50 years old, the rate climbed by 67%, rising from about 340 cases per year to about 640 cases. For men 50 years old and older, rates have increased by 59% from about 2,100 cases to about 4,400 cases annually.
Oral cancer is more common in men, but women have seen sharper increases. There has been a 71% rise in women younger than the age of 50 years with annual cases growing from about 160 to about 300. Women aged 50 and older also saw a 71% increase, with a jump from about 1,100 to about 2,200 cases.
Cancer Research UK attributes 9 in 10 cases to lifestyle and other risk factors. Smoking, the most prevalent risk factor, is linked to approximately 65% of cases. Other risk factors include alcohol, diets low in fruit and vegetables, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.
“It’s worrying that oral cancer has become more common. It’s important to get to know your body and what’s normal for you to help spot the disease as early as possible,” said Jessica Kirby, Cancer Research UK’s senior health information manager.
“An ulcer or sore in your mouth or tongue that won’t go away, a lump on your lip or in your mouth, a red or red and white patch in your mouth, or an unexplained lump in your neck are all things to look out for,” Kirby said.
Working with the British Dental Association, Cancer Research UK has developed an oral cancer toolkit to help healthcare providers spot oral cancer and refer suspected cases sooner. It includes a detailed image library, a referral guide, case studies, and examination videos.
“Healthy lifestyles can help reduce the risk of developing the disease in the first place. Not smoking, drinking less alcohol, and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can all help to cut our risk of mouth cancer,” said Kirby.
Other research has shown that while smoking still accounts for the greatest number of oral cancers, HPV-caused oral cancers are growing at a faster rate. HPV is commonly transmitted through sexual activity, and vaccines are available to inhibit its spread.
“HPV vaccination could help protect against oral HPV infections, and it can prevent a range of cancers associated with the HPV virus, so it’s a good idea to get the vaccine if you are offered it,” Kirby said.
“I had thought that most people with mouth cancer are heavy smokers over the age of 50, so I was completely shocked when I was diagnosed with the disease,” said Andrea Fearon, 47, who was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2013 after a routine checkup by her dentist.
“I’m proof that this type of cancer isn’t limited to a particular age or sex,” Fearon said. “I thought seeing the dentist was about looking after your teeth, but it can save your life. It’s thanks to my dentist that the mouth cancer was caught early. That’s why I feel so lucky to be alive.”