Kentucky has the third highest rate of oral cancer in the United States, with North Dakota and Mississippi ranking first and second. Within Kentucky, there are certain counties that have very high rates of oral cancer. Several of these counties are located in eastern Kentucky. When oral cancer is found in the early stages, outcomes are improved and survival rates are excellent.
To work to address oral cancer in areas of Kentucky with high oral cancer rates, the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry is conducting the “Eradicate Oral Cancer in Eastern Kentucky” project, with support from the United Health Foundation.
The first goal of the project is to find undiagnosed cases of oral cancer in the residents of eastern Kentucky and to get those patients the care they need to treat the oral cancer. The UK College of Dentistry team is collaborating with local health departments in Pike, Letcher, and Harlan counties to provide free oral cancer screenings to achieve this goal.
The second goal of the project is to increase awareness about the risk factors of oral cancer and what can be done to prevent it. The project team is using a variety of educational venues and tools to communicate key messages to the residents of eastern Kentucky, including television, radio, social media, school programs, and educational programs for community groups and healthcare providers.
The National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report that Letcher County has an oral cancer rate of 17.1 per 100,000 people while the Kentucky rate is 14.2 and the national average is 11.7.
Use of tobacco is the number one risk factor for oral cancer. Kentucky has the second highest rate of smoking in the nation. The national average for adult smoking is 14 percent while the Kentucky rate approaches 24 percent. In some Kentucky counties nearly one third of the residents smoke. More troubling is the youth tobacco use rate. Kentucky is ranked the least healthy state in the nation for tobacco use among youth.
Excessive alcohol use is another risk factor for oral cancer. Excessive use is defined as eight or more drinks per week for females and 15 or more drinks per week for males. 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 Papillomavirus (HPV) is another risk factor for oral cancer. 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 federal Food and Drug Administration recently approved it for use up to the age of 45.
One of the main messages of the project is the importance of yearly oral cancer exams. Early detection is critical to aid survival rates. Every adult should be screened for oral cancer every 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. Some people mistakenly think that if they have do not have teeth or have dentures, they do not need to go to the dentist. Oral cancer could be hiding under a denture, so it is still vital to get an annual oral cancer screening even if you have dentures or do not have teeth.
Adults should perform their own oral cancer selfcheck 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. The most common signs of oral cancer are ulcers that have not healed in two weeks, red or white patches, and lumps/swellings in the mouth or on the neck. If any concerns are noted during the self-exam, an appointment should be promptly made with a physician or dentist. In addition, the following signs should be reported to a physician or dentist:
• 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; or
• Hoarseness of the voice that lingers for a prolonged period.
For more information about oral cancer, visit www.ukdentistry.org/oralcancer.
To schedule a free oral cancer screening for yourself or to host a screening event at your business, contact Suetta Clevinger at 606-205-9286.