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Preventing Oral Cancer: What do we really KNOW?

The story always goes something like this: stop smoking, stop drinking coffee and alcohol, don’t eat chocolate, eat vegetables and fruits, exercise and drink a lot of water and you prevent this or that type of cancer.

Really?! It is like a dogma, where anything that makes us happy is bad for us…

This is the naked science about Oral Cancer:

Tobacco use

The bad news: tobacco is the most common cause of oral cancer. The risk of cancer is 5 to 10 times higher for current smokers than for people who have never smoked. This applies to all types of tobacco use, such as cigarettes, cigars, pipes and smokeless snuff, and chewing tobacco. The risk of oral cancer also increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day.

The good news: quitting smoking will reduce your risk by 50% in 5 years. In 20 years your risk will be equal to someone who has never smoked.

Alcohol use

The bad news: alcohol is a risk factor for oral cancer and the risk increases with the number of alcoholic drinks per day. The risk is about twice as high in people who have 3-4 drinks per day and 5 times as high in people who have 5 or more alcoholic drinks per day compared to people who don’t drink alcohol.

The good news: It has not been proven that stopping alcohol use will decrease the risk of oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer (this is not the good news). Your best bet is to stay below the 3 alcoholic drinks per day, on average per week.

Tobacco and alcohol use

Here there is only bad news: Using a combination of alcohol and tobacco increases your risk of oral cancer two or three times more than for those who only use one of the two.

The really bad news: For those who smoke two or more packs of cigarettes per day and who also drink 4 or more alcoholic drinks per day, the rise of oral cancer increases by 35 times compared to those or do neither.

Chewing betel quid or gutka (betel quid mixed with tobacco) increases the risk for oral cancer because betel quid contains a cancer causing substance which is areca nut. The risk is related to how long and how often chewing has occurred.  Don’t do it.

Personal history of head and neck cancer

If you already had cancer in the head and neck areas, then the risk for oral cancer increases.

Bottom line:

Quitting smoking is the ONLY proven way to reduce your risk.

It would strongly help to:

  • limit alcoholic beverages to about 2 per day on average per week
  • If you must pick your poison: either smoke, or drink, but avoid doing both.
  • Don’t use betel quid
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