Our researchers, in collaboration with local and overseas colleagues, have published a new study that shows an alarming rise in the number of young people being diagnosed with tongue cancer.
The results, published in Oral Oncology, showed a significant increase in the incidence of tongue cancer in people under 45, particularly in young women where the incidence has risen by a staggering 385% over 32 years.
“Tongue cancer is traditionally a disease found in older men with a history of smoking or heavy drinking,” said A/Prof Carsten Palme, Director of the Head and Neck Cancer Service at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. “The data confirms a worrying global trend that we have been observing for some time in head and neck cancer.”
Despite a steady decrease in the number of people who smoke over the last decade, the results show an increase in young people without identifiable risk factors being diagnosed with oral cancer. In particular, the number of women under 45 being diagnosed with tongue cancer is rising significantly faster than women over 45 and men.
Tongue cancer is a rare and devastating disease involving highly complex treatment given its location within the delicate structures of the head and neck. Treatment often involves removal of part of the tongue and jaw which can result in permanent disabilities in speech and swallowing, facial disfigurement and lifelong dependence on feeding tubes for nutrition.
The huge increase is of particular concern to the nation’s dentists. Australian Dental Association spokesperson and Oral Medicine Specialist at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse Dr Sue-Ching Yeoh, added, “Dentists are in a prime position to identify early and possibly sinister changes in the mouth and may be a first port of call if you have concerns about an ulcer or lump that does not seem to be healing.”
“Early detection is critical to achieving a good outcome for these young patients and this is further improved by access to a multidisciplinary team of experts in a centre performing a high volume of complex head and neck surgery,” said A/Prof Palme. “It’s important to be aware of any changes in the mouth and get them checked, especially if it is lump or an ulcer that doesn’t go away.”
“We are now looking to identify the potential cause of the disease in these young, non-smokers to not only better treat the cancer but also put appropriate prevention measures in place,” said A/Prof Palme. “Our team is conducting research into the tongue cancer genome, but the answers are still some way off.”
The study was based on data from 11,682 patients with tongue cancer from Australia and Singapore.