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The not-so-sexy reality of oral cancer

Published:Tuesday | October 27, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Renae Williams
UTech, Jamaica College of Oral Health Sciences students in training.

Oral cancer does not exactly strike fear into the hearts of the masses. However, unlike other diseases, oral cancer is rarely spoken about, and when most people hear about it they don't feel that awe-stricken remorse that one gets when they find out someone has breast cancer or pancreatic cancer.

Even research into this disease has been limited, despite the equal lethalness of this cancer. For this reason, the College of Oral Health Sciences at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) has embarked on a nationwide initiative to raise awareness about oral cancer.

Like prostate, breast and cervical cancers, oral cancer is amenable to early detection and treatment. The disease may present itself as a malignancy of the lips, tongue, floor of mouth, salivary glands, inner cheeks, gums, or the roof of the mouth.

Smoking of tobacco accounts for 90 per cent of all cases of oral cancer. However, other risk factors include alcohol abuse, poor dental and oral hygiene, and chronic irritation such as rough teeth and dentures. HPV is also closely linked to the condition.

Oral cancer is preventable Simple lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, healthy dieting, smoking cessation and minimal alcohol consumption are significant preventative measures. Treatment modalities include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy (often in combination).

However, 'prevention is better than cure', as treatment of oral cancer often affects the quality of life. Surgery, for example, usually entails the removal of a part of the mandible (lower jaw), radiation therapy affects saliva production and chemotherapy causes hair loss.

During October, Oral Health Month, the college has been hosting activities under the theme, 'Jamaica Smiles'. Dr Suzanne Grey, a faculty member and president of the Help Jamaica Smile Foundation, has led the charge in raising awareness alongside me, the deputy representative of the Joint Colleges, Renae Williams.

Dr Grey states, "Being aware of the signs of oral cancer is crucial, especially in Jamaica, as a lot of patients that present with the disease are at advanced stages that inevitably lead to greater morbidity that could have easily been avoided by a simple oral cancer screening at a dentist."

Dr Irving McKenzie, chief dental officer for the Ministry of Health and interim dean at UTech's College of Oral Health Sciences, also endorses the initiative, noting, "We are seeing the patients with oral cancer too late. So, even though oral cancer may not be as prevalent as breast cancer and cervical cancer, the case fatality rate in Jamaica is significantly high. Thereby, survivors of oral and pharyngeal cancer end up being socially recluse because of the significant facial disfigurement and loss of functionality."




The college celebrated Oral Health Month by dedicating each week of the month to a special initiative. The first week focused on special-needs children; the second week focused on outreach and research; the third was a school-based oral-health education initiative. The fourth week will culminate with the inaugural hosting of the college's first Oral Cancer Walk/Run on October 31. The initiative is geared towards raising funds for the construction of an oral cancer research and treatment facility at UTech.

The Oral Cancer Walk/Run will take place on the front lawns of UTech's Papine campus.

- Renae Williams is a third-year Doctor of Medical Dentistry student at the College of Oral Health Sciences, UTech. Email feedback to and