Oral cancers are those found in the mouth, throat, tongue, and tonsil (oropharynx). Generally, the primary causes of oral cancers are tobacco products and excessive alcohol use. In recent years, however, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) has increasingly been identified as a cause of oral cancers. HPV is most often associated with cervical cancer and genital warts, but two particular types of HPV – types 16 and 18 – have been found to cause oral cancers. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that affects both men and women. In most cases, the body’s immune system fights off an HPV infection, but when this is not the case, an HPV cancer can develop years after an infection.
Signs and symptoms of oral cancer can include:
- A persistent sore throat
- pain when swallowing
- enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
While these are common symptoms of many ailments, a good rule of thumb is to see your primary care provider if symptoms last for more than 2 weeks. Keep track of any unusual or suspicious sores or swellings that you experience and bring them to the attention of your health care provider. Oral cancers can also be found during routine dental check-ups and annual physicals, which is why it’s very important to make and keep these wellness appointments.
In general, to prevent oral cancers you should also avoid all tobacco products and excessive alcohol consumption. With more and more cancer cases being caused by HPV, the most effective method of preventing the disease is to receive the HPV vaccine. It is recommended that HPV vaccines are administered between the ages of 11 to 12 in both males and females, but can be given as late as age 21 for males and 26 for females. The two vaccines for HPV that are currently available are Gardasil and Cervarix, and each requires two or three doses, six months apart to be effective. It is not a mandatory vaccine, but it is the best way to prevent cervical cancer in women, and prevent the occurrence and spread of other cancers associated with HPV in all individuals.
Rick Diehl is a head and neck oncology navigator at the Cone Health Cancer Center at Wesley Long Hospital. He received his Bachelor of Science in nursing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2007. He has seven years of experience in hospice and palliative care and has been the head and neck oncology navigator for three years.