Oral cancer is on the rise in the U.S., but many people think they are not at risk of being affected since they don’t smoke. The most common cause of oral cancer is still smoking, as smokers are 6 times more likely to be diagnosed with it. However, about 25% of oral cancer patients are nonsmokers according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, and with 100 new diagnoses in America every day, that becomes a significant number.
Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week 2012 is April 22-28, and we’ll be posting a 2-part series with some facts and information you may not know about oral cancer. See Part 2: 7 Facts You May Not Know About Oral Cancer
Oral Cancer and Alcohol
Several factors could contribute to oral cancer in nonsmokers. The most common of these is alcohol consumption, as drinkers are 6 times more likely to develop oral cancer than those who do not drink. Alcohol may affect cancer in a couple of different ways, according to the American Cancer Society.
- Tissue damage: Alcohol can often act as an irritant in the mouth and throat, which could damage cells. If these damaged cells try to repair themselves, this may cause DNA changes in the cells that could lead to cancer.
- Solvent to other chemicals: Alcohol can sometimes help other harmful chemicals found in the mouth enter the cells that line the upper digestive tract, such as the mouth and pharynx, more easily. This also helps explain why the combination of drinking and smoking often causes cancer, because alcohol can react with the chemicals from tobacco smoke.
Another cause of oral cancer—or, more specifically, lip cancer—in nonsmokers is excessive exposure to the sun. Just as over-exposure to harmful UV rays can cause skin cancer, so can it cause lip cancer. Men are 6 times more likely to develop lip cancer than women, especially white men who work several hours in the sun. Lip cancer is more likely to be caused by spending excessive time in the sun than by even tobacco or alcohol consumption.
Lip cancer is most commonly basal or squamous cell cancer. Basal cell cancer grows very slowly and rarely spreads, therefore making it the least serious. Squamous cell cancer is slightly more problematic because it can spread to other parts of the body and is therefore harder to cure. If you are going to be out in the sun for a while, it might be a good idea to wear a hat or a lip balm with SPF to help reduce your chances of getting lip cancer.
The Role of Genetics in Oral Cancer
The last major cause of oral cancer in nonsmokers is genetics. Oral cancer is not directly hereditary, but having a family history of it can increase your chances of being diagnosed. The American Oral Cancer Foundation states that “having a genetic predisposition to cancer itself may make your body more sensitive to cell mutation developed from exposure to things like tobacco, later, a possible result in Oral Cancer. “
If you have a family history of oral cancer, you will want to be especially careful with alcohol, tobacco and sun exposure since you are more at risk than those without a family history.
It is important to be aware of the causes of oral cancer even if you are not at high risk. Oral cancer affects more than 35,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the American Cancer Society, and the National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 100 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each day. Anyone could be affected, and knowing the risk factors will help you know best how to prevent it.