It’s hard to offer any solid guarantees about any type of cancer prevention. Genetics and environment can certainly play a role. Some cancers have been correlated to habits like smoking, while others appear to sometimes have a viral component, and still others seem to simply come out of nowhere. But even though we still don’t know everything about why cancer starts in one person and not another, we do know a great deal about the everyday habits that can significantly increase your chances of developing cancer in the mouth regardless of other factors. In fact, as far as researchers can tell us so far, the risk factors for oral cancer are overwhelmingly related to controllable lifestyle choices.
Of all the potential risk factors for oral cancer, smoking tobacco, using smokeless tobacco products, and drinking alcohol regularly and in excess continue to be the highest-risk lifestyle choices a person can make. And for those who combine smoking or smokeless tobacco with drinking regularly, this risk is compounded significantly.
Now it is true that in comparison to the incidences of other types of cancer, statistically oral cancer is still relatively rare. However, individuals are not statistics, and for those people who do develop oral cancer, the effects can be devastating. Whole portions of the tongue, cheek, and jawbone can be lost in the most severe cases. Even with the current advances in prosthetic reconstruction, the structure of the face and the function of the jaw will never be quite the same after that kind of damage. So why risk it at all when the simple choice to not use tobacco and to drink only in moderation could be the key to preventing oral cancer from ever developing?
Unfortunately, the answers are not that simple. Alcohol and the nicotine found in tobacco both have addictive properties, and once a person starts a habit with one or both, it can be very difficult to break it. Certainly, helping our children to avoid starting these habits at all is the best first step in the fight against oral cancer. But many pre-teens, teens, and young adults still remain unaware of the risks. It is an undeniable characteristic of youth to believe in invincibility, but it is also striking how undereducated many young people still are about how the choices they are making right now could affect their health in the long-term.
Of specific concern right now is the growing use of smokeless tobacco products among teenagers. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, indicates that 5.6 percent of American teenagers use smokeless tobacco products. That seems like a small number, but it shouldn’t. The most recent 2012 US Census data estimates that there are 21.2 million 15 to 19 year-olds living in the United States. That means that well over a million American teenagers are likely using smokeless tobacco products right now. What is even more disturbing about the research findings is that the majority of these students using smokeless tobacco tend to perceive all tobacco products, smokeless or not, as less harmful overall.
Clearly, we need to do a better job of informing young people of all the dangers associated with excessive tobacco and alcohol use. In that effort, I have created a new resource this month discussing the multiple ways that cancer can affect the mouth so that you will be able to have more informed conversations with your children about all the potential dangers of starting these habits.