Sex, Drugs & Oral Cancer™

Yep, you read that right.  There’s a new song in town, and while its ending may surprise you, it is one on which we should all be educated.   


The incidence of oral cancer has increased each of the last 21 years.  Since 2011, the number of people diagnosed with oral cancer has more than doubled, and in 2024 alone, it is estimated that a total of 58,450 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer.¹  Traditionally, oral cancer has been associated with the use of legal drugs such as tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption.  While using these two drugs in combination does increase one’s chances of developing oral cancer¹, an increasing number of oral cancers occur in patients without either of these traditional risk factors.  Unfortunately, there is another vast demographic that is not being talked about that we’re seeing get oral cancer a lot more now.  Currently, the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), transmitted primarily through sexual contact, is the cause of the fastest-growing oral cancer population under the age of 50², drastically changing the epidemiology of this disease.


So, what is HPV, and what do we need to know about it?  HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.³  The greater the number of sexual partners one has, the greater their chances of being infected with HPV, along with those who have weakened immune systems.²  There are over 200 strains of HPV that affect different parts of the body, most of which are cleared by the body’s immune system and never cause a problem.⁴  HPV-16 is the strain identified as being associated with the rising incidence of oral cancer, particularly in the oropharynx or the back part of the throat, which includes the base of the tongue, soft palate, and tonsils.²  Right now, 70% of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV³, and it is affecting males 4 to 1 over females.²


Early detection of oral cancer is one of the most influential factors in the prognosis of one’s diagnosis.  When caught early (stage I-II), the 5-year survival rate increases from 39%- 69% (survival rate when found in late stages, III-IV) to 87%.¹  For many years, incorporating advanced technology has allowed clinicians to provide a higher quality of care for their patients. Pap smears, colonoscopies, PSA tests, and mammograms have all provided clinicians with the opportunity to discover cancer at its earliest stages to save more lives. Oral cancer is no different; oral cancer screening in the dental office can save lives.  Seeing a dental professional regularly and asking for an oral cancer screening with advanced technology like that used by OralID® allows clinicians to visualize oral tissue abnormalities in its earliest stages, providing the greatest possible outcome for the patient.


Increasing public awareness of this new risk factor is another crucial step in changing the trends in oral cancer.  We need to be educating our youth on safe sex practices, parents need to be educated on the available options for HPV vaccination, and dental professionals need to be screening early, often, and with the latest technologies.


Shining light on this dark topic is something we can all play a part in.  Together, we can make a difference in the battle against oral cancer.


Ellen Myers

Ellen Myers, RDH, BS

Ellen Myers, a graduate of Texas A&M University College of Dentistry with a B.S. in Dental Hygiene, is a Registered Dental Hygienist with over a decade of clinical experience. With a passion for preventive care and both patient and clinician education, Ellen joined the Forward Science team to make a global impact. Ellen is currently the Director of Training & Education at Forward Science, where she provides ongoing clinical training and support to current and potential partners, as well as the Forward Science sales team. Ellen spearheads the development of clinical education programs and provides continuing education on the early discovery of oral cancer and other oral health concerns.


1.  Cancer facts & figures 2024. American Cancer Society.

2.  Oral cancer facts – oral cancer foundation: Information and resources about oral head and neck cancer. Oral Cancer Foundation | Information and Resources about Oral Head and Neck Cancer. (2022, December 16).

3.  HPV and oropharyngeal cancer.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, September 12).,HPV%20for%20cancer%20to%20develop.

4.  HPV and cancer. National Cancer Institute.

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