Few associate the dental visit with inquiries into one’s intimate life, but new and disturbing statistics about the connection between sexually transmitted diseases and the spike in oral cancers, may change all that.
Consider these data points:
- HPV, the human papillomavirus, is the fastest growing sexually transmitted organism
- Because it rarely manifests with physical symptoms, most individuals infected with HPV don’t know they have it, and don’t know they’re passing it on to their sexual partners
- HPV was responsible for a staggering 225% increase in oropharyngeal cancers from 1988-2004
HPV looks like a culprit in the changing face of the typical oral cancer victim. No longer is this disease which afflicts as many 40,000 new people every year (according to the American Cancer Society) confined to older, smokers who drink excessive amounts of alcohol. More than 25% of all new oral cancer patients had none of these risk factors. Men are 3 times more likely to get an oral cancer diagnosis than women. Making matters worse, 70% of new oral cancer diagnoses occur at the late stages of the disease, making survival even less likely.
So what to do? We think it’s time to start having what might seem like uncomfortable conversations with your patients. By a wide margin, people are more likely to end up in a dental chair twice a year than they are likely to see their family doctor even once a year.
That means that dental professionals have an opportunity to make a big dent in this voracious and awful cancer, but only if we’re willing to ask our patients about their sexual habits, and to screen everyone, at least once a year, with the best diagnostic instrumentation and testing available. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, “mass screening is the only viable choice to find oral cancer at precancerous or very early stage high survival stages.”
Better to have this challenging conversation than to send flowers to the family of a beloved patient who was lost to this disease.