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Recent data by the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCSS) has shown that young women are increasingly developing tongue cancer, which had previously been known to affect more men. In the past decade, NCSS has seen a three to fourfold growth in the number of tongue cancer cases among young women aged 35 to 55.

In the past, tongue cancer patients were mostly men, with the ratio of three male patients to one female. Today’s statistics show equal incidences between the genders with tongue cancer.

Why the change in trend?

Dr Gopal Iyer, Consultant Surgeon at NCSS, shared that this trend was usually seen in developed countries, but what was puzzling was that the catalysts for tongue cancer in females were different from before.

Previously, elderly men who have had long history of smoking and drinking, along with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as HPV (human papillomavirus), contacted tongue cancer.

Today’s female patients do not smoke, drink or have HPV or other STDs. Neither do they have other suspected causes – such as poor dentition (sharp teeth or badly fitted dentures).

Dr Gopal, together with other clinician scientists at NCSS studied this cancer mystery in-depth to find the root cause. To date, there have been no confirmed answers to the theories, but some promising markers have surfaced with genome sequencing.

The two theories are:

  • Female patients with tongue cancer may already have a higher genetic risk of the disease. This risk, combined with a previous short but sustained exposure to cigarettes (whether by smoking or inhaling second hand smoke) may kick start the cancer
  • Suspected (but unconfirmed) link with diet such as eating processed foods and cooked food with carcinogens.

Treatment

  • Tongue cancer can be treated effectively, usually by removing part of the tongue, depending on the scale of the cancer
  • In cases where more than two thirds of the tongue is removed, patients may have difficulty speaking or swallowing. Reconstruction and speech therapy, along with radiotherapy and chemotherapy to fight the cancer is recommended.

Generally, patients will be able to speak and use their tongues normally post-surgery. Early detection and swift treatment is important. Consult a doctor/specialist when you have a persistent ulcer that will not go away after a few weeks, even if it is painless, and especially if the lesion is growing.

Regular visits to your dentist will help in early oral cancer detection and save you much cost, pain and psychological trauma. In short, prevention is always better than cure.

Specialist Dental Group®’s team of experienced dental specialists provides dental assessments. Our specialists are also familiar with the oral implications of medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc.

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