Every year more than 34,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer. It causes approximately 8000 deaths and, of those diagnosed this year, only half will be alive in five years. These numbers have not significantly improved in decades. Worldwide the problem is much greater than that found in the United States with over 400,000 new cases found each year. (1)
The death rate associated with this cancer is particularly high because it is routinely discovered late in development. Often, it is discovered only when the cancer has metastasized to another location. Prognosis at this point is significantly worse than when it’s found localize to the oral area. Oral cancer is also dangerous because in its early stages it may not be noticed by the patient and will frequently not produce pain or symptoms.
Scientists and researchers from across the country continue to study this disease to learn more about the causes, prevention and treatment. Physicians do know that oral cancer is not contagious, that one person can not catch it from another. They also know that two known causes of oral cancer are tobacco and alcohol use.
Smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes as well as chewing tobacco or dipping snuff will account for 80 to 90 percent of oral cancers which are diagnosed each year. A number of studies have indicated that cigar and pipe smokers have the same risk as individuals who smoke cigarettes. These results indicate that it is not the methodology in which the tobacco is delivered to the system but rather the tobacco itself. Studies also indicate that smokeless tobacco users are at a higher risk of developing oral cancer, probably because of the delivery method.
Research has also found that individuals who stop using tobacco, whether it that smoking or smokeless, can greatly reduce their risk of oral cancer. Special programs are available through most hospitals and the American Cancer Society to help individuals who want to quit smoking.
Chronic or heavy use of alcohol can also increase the risk of oral cancer, even for those people who do not use tobacco. Individuals who use both alcohol and tobacco have an even greater risk of developing the cancer because scientists believe that these substances potentiate, or increase, each other’s harmful effects.
Oral cancer also includes cancer of the lip. This type of cancer can be caused by exposure to the sun. Individuals can minimize their risk by using a lotion or lip balm that includes sunscreen and wearing a hat with a brim to block the harmful rays of the sun. Lip cancer risk will also increase dramatically if an individual also smokes. A past history of head and neck cancer will also increase the risk of an individual developing another primary cancer in the mouth.
While smoking and alcohol consumption are well established risk factors for oral cancer, researchers have also confirmed that ethanol in mouthwash also increases the risk of individuals for developing oral cancer. Professor McCullough from Melbourne University in Australia, said that alcohol in mouthwash allows cancer-causing substances, such as nicotine, to penetrate more easily the lining of the mouth. It can also mean a toxic breakdown of the alcohol byproducts can accumulate in the oral cavity when switched around the mouth.
In this review of the research, researchers reported evidence in an international study of over 3000 people that found daily mouthwash use was a significant risk factor for head and neck cancer. The effects were worse in individuals who smoke and had a nine fold increased risk of cancer. Those who drink alcohol had a five times greater risk of cancer if they use mouthwash which contained ethanol.
This research, recently released from the United Kingdom and Australia, has been met with resistance from corporations which manufacture and produce mouthwash. A spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, which makes Listerine, stated that its this review included only a selective group of clinical data and that evidence from at least 10 epidemiological studies over the last three decades digested that use of alcohol containing rinses did not increase the risk of oral cancer.
Other research has refuted these claims. The choice of using mouthwashes with alcohol is one that now lies in the hands of the individual user. However, despite disagreement over published research findings and many more manufacturers are now offering mouthwash alternatives that do not contain ethanol.
(1) Oral Cancer Foundation: Facts
Journal of Pakistan Medical Association: Alcohol Use in Mouthwash and Possible Oral Health Concerns
Go Ask Alice: Alochol in Mouthwash
Oral Cancer Foundation
National Cancer Institute: Oral Cancer
Cleveland Clinic: Oral Cancer
American Cancer Society: Oral Cancer