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Oral cancer poses significant risk

Oral and pharyngeal cancers are often thought of as relatively rare. Yet these cancers of the mouth and upper throat claim a life every single hour.

When the disease is detected early, the survival rates are good – 80 to 90 percent, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. However, most cases are uncovered in the late stages, when the death rate is much higher.

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and the Foundation and dental professionals want everyone to know the dangers and risk factors associated with this life-threatening disease. Even when it is treated successfully, survivors often encounter long-term problems such as severe facial disfigurement or difficulties with eating and speaking.

Alcohol and tobacco use have long been known as major risk factors, according to the Foundation. Another factor, more recently identified, is exposure to the HPV-16 virus (human papilloma virus version 16). It is the same virus that causes the large majority of women’s cervical cancers. A small group of people – less than 10% — get oral cancers from no identified cause. These cases may have a genetic origin or a yet-unidentified shared risk factor.

There are steps people can take to reduce their risk, including HPV vaccinations, avoiding tobacco use, and limiting alcohol use. The website also has helpful, detailed tips – including easy-to-follow pictures – on how to conduct a self-examination. And, of course, the Oral Cancer Foundation has extensive information about the disease and its treatment.

Even if you don’t see any signs of the disease, it’s best to have your dentist perform a thorough check at your next visit. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons, whose specialty includes diagnosis and treatment of oral and pharyngeal cancers, are especially well qualified to do an examination. The University of Washington’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery welcomes inquiries. Appointments can be  scheduled at its clinic, the Northwest Center for Oral and Facial Surgery, but a referral from the patient’s regular dentist is recommended.