Oral cancer up, doctors point to HPV

(NBC)-The number of cases of oral cancer is way up and the problem isn't tobacco.

A regular teeth cleaning includes a cancer screening if your dentist is Dr. Lee Fitzgerald.

"If anything, we're seeing a rise in oral cancer and it's not due to tobacco or alcohol, it's due to HPV," Fitzgerald said.

Young people he said are walking in with lesions -- HPV or the human papilloma virus. It can lead to cervical cancer but also to cancers of the mouth.

"They need to know that a lot of different behaviors have consequences for becoming infected," Fitzgerald explained.

The numbers are real. Oral cancer kills one person every hour. If you survive it can be disfiguring.

Just ask Norbert Sobek. He's never used a tobacco product but has battled oral cancer almost his entire life.

"When it happens to you, it is extremely devastating," Sobek said.

Rick Agee has a similar story, "It's been difficult because it affects your eating and swallowing,"

A study published in the Journal Head and Neck finds a link between HPV and the increase in cases of certain oral cancer…that of the nasopharynx.

Arma Fitzgerald was so compelled by the numbers she started a foundation to educate people.

You can save your child's life by talking openly about HPV and oral cancer and the connection between the two," Fitzgerald said.

The most common symptom of oral cancer is a sore in the throat or mouth that bleeds easily or does not heal.  Dentists can detect oral cancer at an early stage -- but recent surveys show as many as 75% of dentists do not screen for it.

Copyright 2010 NBC. All rights reserved.