UCC study shows oral cancer rates on the rise in women

Oral cancer rates in Ireland increased significantly between 1999 and 2009, driven by a sharp rise of the disease in women, a medical study has found.

The disease in females rose over a 16-year period beginning in 1994 at an annual rate of 3.2%. In contrast, an annual decrease in oral cancer rates of 4.8% was recorded in males between 1994 and 2001 before the rate of decrease stabilised over the following eight years.

A group of researchers from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCC examined the cases of 2,147 individuals who were diagnosed with oral cancer between 1994 and 2009.

Around two-thirds of cases were males, while most incidences of oral cancer were found in those aged over 60 years, in existing smokers, and people from a deprived background.

The study, recently published in the journal BMC Cancer, estimated the lifetime risk of developing oral cancer at 0.7% for males and 0.5% for females. In other words, on average seven men out of 1,000 and five women out of 1,000 have a risk of being diagnosed.

Researchers found there was an elevated risk of death among oral cancer patients who were over 60, smokers, unemployed, or retired, as well as people from a deprived background and those whose tumour was located in the base of the tongue. A reduced risk was associated with married people and those who had been diagnosed in more recent years.

The research team said the results showed the influence of factors such as smoking, time of diagnosis and age, on incidence.

They said other factors including alcohol, HPV and diet could also be contributory factors.

“Several of these are modifiable risk factors which are crucial for informing public health policies, and thus more research is needed,” said one of the lead researchers, Hala Ali.

Researchers expressed concern about the rising incidence or oral cancer in females which rose from 24% in 1994 to 32% in 2009, especially as the disease is traditionally more common in men. They said the trend might be related to underlying patterns of tobacco consumption over the past decades where the decrease in smoking was at a slower rate in women.

Married people, they noted, were better at adhering to medication and were subject to encouragement by spouses to seek medical care for worrying signs.

After a cancer diagnosis, married patients display less anxiety and depression than their unmarried counterparts as their partners can provide support.

“This phenomenon raises the possibility of unmarried patients being a suitable target for social support interventions that may improve survival,” the report stated.

The UCC team found that patients who developed cancer at the tongue and base of the tongue had lower survival rates than patients with other types of the disease.

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