Expert Interview

Ask the Expert – Petra Wilder-Smith, D.D.S. Ph.D.

What is the most important lifestyle change I can make to reduce my risk of getting oral cancer?

“Of all factors known to contribute to oral cancer, tobacco and alcohol in combination is the strongest predictor of oral cancer,” says Petra Wilder-Smith, associate professor and Director of Dentistry Beckman Laser Institute at the University of California, Irvine. “All forms of tobacco products have been strongly linked to the cause of oral cancer. Moreover, the greater the length of time tobacco is used, and the greater the amount used, the greater the risk. Alcohol consumption appears to add significantly to the risk of cancer development as it irritates the lining of the mouth and acts as a solvent for carcinogens making them easier to be absorbed into the body. ”

Is there any new research about oral cancer?

“Disturbing new evidence shows that oral cancer has struck at a new group,” explains Dr. Wilder-Smith. “This emerging group is 20 to 30 years of age, eats a healthy diet, exercises regularly and does not consume tobacco or alcohol products. Normally, this group would have an extremely low incidence of oral cancer, but recent evidence has come to light that this population is developing an aggressive form of oral cancer caused by HPV (human papilloma virus)”. The new information is a compelling reason for young people to include oral cancer screening in their annual check-ups.

What can I do to detect oral cancer early?

“By far the most common oral cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, accounting for 96% of all oral cancers. It is usually preceded by lesions (either white or red) on the membranes inside the mouth that have been there for a long time,” confirms Dr. Wilder-Smith. “If detected and treated early, the prognosis for survival of oral cancer is better than for most cancers. Unfortunately, two-thirds of oral cancers are diagnosed after they have metastasized. Get your dentist and/or physician to screen for oral cancers on a routine basis.”