Posted on 12/7/2015 by Fariba Mutschler
|Recently, I attended a lecture on mouth and throat cancers and coincidentally the next day I read an article in the Journal of the American Dental Association on oral and pharyngeal cancer prevention. These cancers are especially terrible because they affect patient’s quality of life so much. As bad as lung or breast cancers are, if the affected part is removed, the disfiguring scars are fairly easily hidden from the gaze of the world.
Cancers of the face, mouth, and throat can literally affect all the senses and take away a patient’s eyes, ears, nose, tongue, lips, chin, cheeks, and skull. They can deprive us of the ability to hear, see, speak, eat, taste, and even kiss our children and loved ones. The treatment for these face cancers leaves behind particularly disfiguring damage that often requires artificial face parts called prosthetics.
In 1983, I volunteered at UCLA’s maxillofacial prosthetics lab for a year. This was the impetus for my decision to go into dentistry, although I ended up improving faces with orthodontics rather than plastic face parts. There they made terribly disfigured faces more socially acceptable, often working with special effects experts from nearby Hollywood.
Alcohol and tobacco abuse have been strongly linked to oral cancer. Thankfully, the incidence of many cancers are decreasing as fewer people smoke cigarettes, but NOT certain cancers of the mouth and oral pharynx. These types of cancer are more common, and this seems to be related to increasing infections of the mouth and throat by a virus called the Human PapillomaVirus, or HPV.
The Human Papillomavirus has many variations or strains but there are three or four that seem to be especially dangerous by increasing the likelihood of infected cells turning cancerous. The HPV-16, HPV-18, HPV-31, and HPV-45 strains are especially dangerous.
Viruses are small bits of DNA (or RNA) that are coated with a protein shell so that the DNA can be transferred between cells. Once a virus comes in contact with a susceptible cell, the protein latches onto the cell membrane that surrounds the cell, injects the DNA into the cell, and the DNA inserts itself into the cell’s DNA in such a way that, rather than making the normal cell functions, the cell makes many more viruses and releases them into the world to infect even more cells.
These viruses must change the normal functioning of the skin cells that they infect. Although they mainly make more viruses, the change in DNA can also cause the infected cells to reproduce uncontrollably and thus become cancerous. Fortunately, it seems that the cancers caused by virus infection are somewhat more treatable than the cancers caused by chronic exposure to tobacco and alcohol but cancer is still cancer and it can be deadly.
Human Papallomaviruses infect skin and mucosa (the wet skin inside our bodies) and most noticeably cause ugly warts. Despite cutting off and burning off and freezing off, it seems like all the warts I have ever had kept coming back for years -until they didn’t. Eventually, our body’s immune system fights off the virus infection and the warts go away. The HPV infections we get on our mucosa are usually not noticeable but the infected mucosa is still contagious and so HPV can become a sexually transmitted disease.
As children grow up and become adults, we expect them to become sexually active. We also want our children to be safe. As we know that more and more cancers of the cervix and the mouth are caused by HPV infections, we have the responsibility to help prevent the possible horrible effects of face cancer or hysterectomies when our kids become adults.
New cancers attributable to HPV infections this year: Women had 17,500 (10,400 cervical cancer) and men had 9,300 (7,200 of which are mouth and throat cancers). We can help them stay healthy by immunizing them against the Human Papillomavirus that can cause these diseases, BEFORE they become sexually active and get exposed.
As a pediatric dentist, I feel that I have a responsibility for my patients’ total health as adults as well as their oral health as children and so I am encouraging all my patients, their parents, and their friends to look into receiving the GARDASIL VACCINE for both boys and girls to help prevent both cervical and oral cancers. A series of three injections are required and they should be given before age 21 for both boys and girls.
My two sons were in their late teens and early twenties when I found out about this vaccine. I insisted that they get the vaccine because I am a believer. PLEASE GET YOUR KIDS VACCINATED TOO.
My daughter was a little nervous to have her dental work done but everyone in the office was super friendly and very reassuring and that helped her nervousness go away. Thanks for the excellent dental experience. ~ Lilyana G.
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