Most of the people with oral cancers whom Terrence Thines cares for are in their fifth or sixth decades of life. But lately, the oral surgeon from Upstate’s division of dentistry is seeing younger patients with the same type of disease.
Many are infected with the human papilloma virus, or HPV. Infection with certain types of HPV, easily spread from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact, can cause some forms of cancer. Thines said research so far has not connected the increase in oral cancers directly to HPV, but some experts believe the rise is related to an increase in oral sex.
Tobacco and alcohol use are among the strongest risk factors for oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Smokers are many times more likely than nonsmokers to develop these cancers, says the American Cancer Society, which adds that seven out of 10 patients with oral cancer are heavy drinkers. Combining the two vices ups the risk even more. “According to some studies, the risk of these cancers in heavy drinkers and smokers may be as much as 100 times more than the risk of these cancers in people who don’t smoke or drink,” the society says.
Thines said oropharyngeal cancers – cancers from the lips to the back of the throat – represent up to 4 percent of all cancer diagnoses. The death rate from oral cancer is on the decline, probably due to better diagnosis and better prevention strategies. “You have a good prognosis if the cancer is detected and treated early,” he said.
Depending on the location and type of cancer cells, surgery is likely to be the first step in treatment. That may be followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy. Surgery may be disfiguring. “That’s one of the reasons we promote early detection,” Thines said, explaining that the earlier oral cancers are detected, the smaller they are likely to be and the less tissue that has to be removed.