By Jed J. Jacobson, DDS, MS, MPH, chief science officer and senior vice president, Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana


Oral cancer is on the rise – and heavy drinkers and tobacco users aren’t the only ones at high risk.

New research indicates that an alarming number of young people are developing oral cancer related to human papillomavirus (HPV). Although oral cancer is most common in people over age 50, the fastest-growing segment of newly-diagnosed cases is nonsmoking young adults. Studies show that HPV has surpassed smoking and alcohol use to become the leading cause of head and neck cancers in the U.S., particularly among men. In fact, 72% of all oral cancers are HPV related.

No matter the cause, oral cancer can be deadly. It claims the life of roughly one person every hour – that’s 24 people every day or 8,650 a year. Only slightly more than 63% of those diagnosed will survive in the next five years. If not diagnosed and treated in its early stages, oral cancer can spread, leading to chronic pain, loss of function, facial and oral disfigurement and death. This means that early detection and treatment are vital.

Because head and neck cancers are some of the most expensive to treat, they are of particular interest to health care providers, patients and those paying for health care services. A 2012 study found that, on average, total annual health care spending and short-term disability spending per person during the year following an oral cancer diagnosis was nearly $100,000. The research also determined that the average cost of care almost doubled to $153,892 in a privately-insured population when patients received all three types of treatment: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. After treatment, only 48% of oral cancer survivors return to work.

There is good news, however. Between 80 and 90% of oral cancer patients will survive if the diagnosis is found in its early stages. The earlier oral cancer is detected and treated, the lower the treatment costs and the better the survival rate – which is just one of the many reasons you should visit your dentist regularly.

Through a painless oral cancer exam, dentists can check the mouth, head, neck and throat for warning signs and symptoms. If a suspicious spot is found, the dentist may use a tool called a BrushTest® to collect cells for analysis to help determine whether additional diagnostic steps are needed.

Patients should perform regular self-examinations to check for early warning signs. Contact your dentist immediately if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Mouth sores that last longer than two weeks
  • Swelling, growths or lumps anywhere in or near your mouth or neck
  • White or red patches in your mouth or on your lips
  • Repeated bleeding from the mouth or throat
  • Difficulty swallowing or persistent hoarseness

For more information on oral cancer, watch Delta Dental’s three-minute oral cancer video on the Delta Dental of Indiana web site.


About Delta Dental: As the state’s largest dental benefits carrier, Delta Dental of Indiana offers a full range of individual and group dental plans for more than 660,000 people. Through education, philanthropy and advocacy, Delta Dental of Indiana is bringing oral health within reach for Indiana children and adults.