“Cancer is the third leading cause of death in the country today. Most of it can be prevented since its risk factors are lifestyle and environmentally related. Early detection of cancer is a crucial key to the survival and recovery of its victims. The earlier you detect the malignancy the higher the survival rate of the patient.”
—Dr. Vic Fileto Chua of Movement for Early Detection of Cancer
WHAT’S the leading cause of oral cancer? Is it smoking or heavy drinking? Although but may cause oral cancer, the leading cause is oral sex, a sexual act that involves the stimulation of the genitalia using the mouth.
Studies have shown that 64 percent of cancers of the oral cavity, head, and neck in the United States are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which is commonly spread via oral sex. The more oral sex you have – and the more oral sex partners you have – the greater the risk of developing these potentially deadly cancers.
“An individual who has six or more lifetime partners—on whom they’ve performed oral sex—has an eightfold increase in risk compared to someone who has never performed oral sex,” explained Dr. Maura Gillison, an oncologist at Ohio State University.
Gillison headed a team of researchers who examined 271 throat-tumor samples collected over 20 years ending in 2004. They found that the percentage of oral cancer linked to HPV surged to 72 percent from about 16 percent.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, said that by 2020, the virus-linked throat tumors—which mostly affected men—will more common than HPV-caused cervical cancer.
“The burden of cancer caused by HPV is going to shift from women to men in this decade,” observed Gillison. “What we believe is happening is that the number of sexual partners and exposure to HPV has risen over that same time period.”
In his weekly column in Philippine Daily Inquirer, Dr. Rafael D. Castillo noted: “Previously, it was well established that smoking (three-fold increase) and drinking alcohol (2.5 times) increased the risk for oral cancer, but even if you combine them, the risk is no match compared to that seen in those who frequently engage in oral sex.”
The government doesn’t have any data on the prevalence of oral cancer in the country but what alarms Castillo is that oral cancer might be rampant among young people. A study done by the University of the Philippines Population Institute showed that more than four million teenagers and young Filipinos are already engaged in sexual practices.
The findings of the third Young Adult Fertility Survey revealed that a total of 4.32 million Filipinos aged 15 to 24 are already sexually active. Another finding is that oral sex has become a common practice “among most sexually adventurous teens.”
“Doing simple math, if the expected prevalence of oral cancer in the general population is 1.5 percent, and with a nine-fold increase in risk, that means that we have approximately 583,000 young Filipinos aged 15 to 24 who are likely candidates to develop oral cancer,” Dr. Castillo surmised.
“Today’s teens consider oral sex to be casual, socially acceptable, inconsequential, and significantly less risky to their health than ‘real’ sex,” said Gillison. Teens simply think oral sex is “not that a big a deal,” added Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “Parents and health educators are not talking to teens about oral sex. Period.”
Members of the Philippine Medical Association (PMA) and the Philippine Dental Association (PDA) also noted that the practice of oral sex can lead to infections of the oral cavity, which may result to cancer of the tonsils, tongue or throat.
“Any lesion in the mouth should be seriously considered,” said Dr. Anne Camus, PDA’s Manila dental chapter president. “Not all can develop to cancer but malignancy must always be taken as an imminent possibility.”
A regular check-up with a dentist would help detect malignancies in the mouth. “The dentists are usually the first to see lesions in the mouth of our patients,” Camus said. “At this early point, if the lesion turns out to be malignant, then chances are it is still curable.”
Oral cancer, or cancer of the mouth, most commonly involves the lips or the tongue. It may also occur on the: cheek lining, floor of the mouth, gums, and roof of the mouth (palate). Most oral cancers are a type called squamous cell carcinomas, which tend to spread quickly.
Aside from oral sex, smoking, and drinking, other factors that add to the risk of oral cancer include repeated irritation from the sharp edges of broken teeth, fillings, or dental prostheses (dentures). “The research regarding their involvement is uncertain. It is likely that there is a complex interaction of many external and internal factors that play a role in the development of oral cancer,” points out the Oral Cancer Foundation in the United States.
“Oral cancers are usually painless for a considerable length of time but eventually do cause pain,” notes “The Merck Manual of Medical Information.” “Pain usually starts when the cancer erodes into nearby nerves. When pain from cancer of the tongue or roof of the mouth begins, it usually occurs with swallowing as with a sore throat.”
The early growth of salivary gland tumors may or may not be painful. “When these tumors do become painful, the pain may be worsened by food, which stimulates the secretion of saliva,” the Merck manual informs. “Cancer of the jawbone often causes pain and a numb or pins-and-needles sensation, somewhat like the feeling of a dental anesthetic wearing off. Cancer of the lip or check may first become painful when the enlarged tissue is inadvertently bitten.”
Discolored areas on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth may be signs of cancer. “An area in the mouth that has recently become brown or darkly discolored may be a melanoma (malignant tumor),” the Merck manual states. “Sometimes, a brown, flat, freckle-like area (smoker’s patch) develops at the site where a cigarette or pipe is habitually held in the lips.”
“Keep in mind that your mouth is one of your body’s most important early warning systems,” reminds the Oral Cancer Foundation. “Don’t ignore any suspicious lumps or sores. Should you discover something, make an appointment for a prompt examination. Early treatment may well be the key to complete recovery.”
According to the US National Cancer Institute, oral cancer treatments may include surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Some patients have a combination of these treatments.