Oral cancer is typically considered an "old man's" disease, but now the sixth most common cancer is targeting a younger generation.
Each year, between 43,000 and 45,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer. Recent trends suggest oral cancer is now impacting people under the age of 40.
10News spoke with Dr. Lee Wilson with University General Dentists who explained several reasons why cancer is popping up in younger patients.
"For many, many years, it was typically, solely related to some lifestyle issues that had to do with smoking, smokeless tobacco, alcohol and age," explained Wilson. "Now we're seeing the younger generation is being affected because of the HPV No. 16. The HPV is also the same virus, virus family that is the cause of cervical cancer. And so what it does, is it affects the mucous of the mouth, affecting change to the cells that then become cancer."
Dr. Wilson said early detection is key when treating oral cancer. If caught early, treatments can reduce how severe cancer becomes. He recommends for people to ask their dentists for oral cancer screenings. During the screening, dentists will look for cancer in common areas like the sides of the tongue or cheeks.
"We're looking for red lesions, white lesions, things that have been in a mouth that haven't healed for more than two weeks - that's something that should be looked at. We look for lumps, bumps, swelling, things that aren't normally there that may be persistent and are some of the signs of early oral cancers," said Wilson.
Unfortunately, right now, Dr. Wilson said most oral cancers are detected late in the game. When detection is this late, people's morbidity and mortality rates go up.
"Late detection, through studies and treatments, has been noted that about 43 percent have a five year or less survival rate. So that's a very high mortality," explained Wilson. "And then if you add the morbidities that go with it, the disfigurement from treatment is very severe and of of the highest costing cancers to treat."
Wilson said the under-40 age group is quickly becoming the largest segment of those with oral cancer: it's not an "old man's" disease anymore. He stressed the importance for people to take extra precautions and stay proactive.
"It's very important to make healthy choices and seek care and screenings when it is available," said Wilson.
According to Wilson, the current HPV vaccine is not designed to guard against oral cancer, but he expects new vaccines will be developed as research advances. He said there are also new oral cancer screening methods in the works, like saliva and tissue screening.