The American Cancer Society (ACS) identifies tobacco use as one of the major risk factors for head and neck cancers, including oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. Quitting smoking — or any other form of tobacco use — is one way to drastically reduce the risk of developing oral or oropharyngeal cancer.
Linking tobacco and cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk of developing oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer is about 1 in 60 for men and 1 in 140 for women. That risk goes up, however, when tobacco is added to the equation.
Science has drawn a clear line connecting tobacco use with an increased risk of multiple cancers, including those of the mouth and throat. Given the composition of most tobacco products, this is hardly surprising. Even smokeless tobacco products contain significant carcinogens in addition to addictive nicotine.
Symptoms and signs
Important patient symptoms to keep track of include the following, according to the American Cancer Society:
- A sore on the lip or in the mouth that doesn’t heal
- Pain in the mouth that doesn’t go away
- A lump or thickening in the lips, mouth, or cheek
- A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
- A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in your throat that doesn’t go away
- Trouble chewing or swallowing
- Trouble moving the jaw or tongue
- Numbness of the tongue, lip, or other area of the mouth
- Swelling or pain in the jaw
- Dentures that start to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
- Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth
- Voice changes
- A lump or mass in the neck or back of the throat
- Weight loss
- Pain in the ear
Though many conditions unrelated to oral or oropharyngeal cancers may cause these symptoms, recurring instances or symptoms lasting a long time are a red flag. Healthcare professionals should keep an eye on these symptoms in their patients, especially those who use tobacco products.
The value of quitting
For patients who use tobacco products, quitting is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of cancer. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, “Smoking cessation represents the single most important step that people who smoke can take to enhance the length and quality of their lives.”
Health benefits begin even a few days after quitting, with the risk of mouth, throat, and larynx cancers reduced by half within five years of quitting.
Resources and awareness
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Healthcare professionals often have a unique passport with patients who use tobacco to address cancer risks. The American Cancer Society provides a useful selection of resources for those looking to quit tobacco use, which can be found here.
To learn more about Oral Cancer Awareness Month, stay on top of the latest research, and find screening resources, visit the Oral Cancer Foundation.