Guest post by Dr. Pam VanArsdall, professor at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry and the Education Director of the grant Eradicate Oral Cancer in Eastern Kentucky.


From 2013-2017 Kentucky had the highest rate of oral cancer in the nation. We know that there are several risk factors for developing oral cancer that can be avoided by making healthy choices for your mouth and body. Tobacco use is the number one risk factor for oral cancer. Kentucky ranks second highest in the nation with an adult smoking rate of nearly 24%, while the national average for adult smoking is just 14%. Further, Kentucky is ranked the least healthy state in the nation for tobacco use (including smoking, vaping and smokeless tobacco) among youth.

Excessive alcohol use is another risk factor for oral cancer. Perhaps most dangerous, is combining smoking and drinking, as the two combined increase the risk for oral cancer 15 times more than the individual risk factors of alcohol or tobacco alone.

Exposure to the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is another risk factor for oral cancer. Kentucky has the highest rates of HPV associated cancers in the nation. For the last ten years, oropharyngeal cancer has been the most common type of HPV associated cancer in the U.S. Oropharyngeal cancer is 3-5 times more common in men than women, thus it is very important for males and females to receive the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine protects against the strain of HPV responsible for oral cancer. Although the HPV vaccine is targeted to adolescent boys and girls, the FDA recently approved it for use up to the age of 45.

Receiving professional oral cancer exams is very important for early detection and is critical to survival rates. Every adult should be screened for oral cancer each year. Getting screened is a simple, quick, and painless process and is an effective way to find cancer (or pre-cancer) at an early, more treatable stage. The dentist can perform this simple exam in less than five minutes. Routine oral health exams are essential for individuals of all ages, including those without teeth or who wear dentures.

In addition to receiving a professional screening from your dentist, every adult should perform their own oral cancer self-check once per month. To do this, stand in a well-lit area, look in a mirror and check the inside of the lips and cheeks, gums, tops/sides of tongue, underside of tongue, roof/floor of mouth and feel the tongue and neck for lumps. If any of the following concerns are noted during the self-exam, an appointment should be promptly made with a physician or dentist.

  • Ulcers that haven’t healed in two weeks
  • Red or white patches
  • Lumps/swelling in the mouth or on the neck
  • Numbness in an area of the mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Pain in only one ear
  • Feeling like something is stuck in your throat
  • Hoarseness of the voice that lingers for a prolonged period

Caring for your oral health goes beyond just brushing and flossing your teeth. Making healthy choices each day and receiving routine exams from a dentist are essential steps to improve your oral and overall health.

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