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Mouth lesions are less likely to become cancerous if you smoke – how can that be?

Posted April 3, 2018

There is such thing as precancerous lesions in the mouths. All people can develop them – both smokers and non-smokers. Obviously, as you may understand from their name, precancerous lesions can develop into cancer. However, scientists from the University of British Columbia found that precancerous lesions are less likely to turn into cancer if the person smokes.

Precancerous mouth lesions are twice as likely to become cancerous if you don’t smoke. Image credit: Tomasz Sienicki via Wikimedia(CC BY 2.5)

Obviously, smoking is still a major factor associated with mouth cancers. However, in this case, the risk of developing cancer for non-smokers with precancerous mouth lesions is twice as big. Furthermore, if it happens, cancer progresses much faster in non-smokers. There have been several studies trying to examine this bizarre link. However, none of them seem to have achieved anything significant, having in mind that many other factors have to be taken into account. Genetic markers, diet and other factors could play a role in increasing the risk of precancerous mouth lesions becoming cancerous, but now scientists pretty much ruled them out. Pretty much, but not entirely.

Scientists analysed the history of 445 patients with oral epithelial dysplasia (a type of precancerous oral lesion) and one-third of them were non-smokers. Results were no less than shocking. Lesions on the floor of the mouth in non-smokers were 38 times more likely to progress to cancer than in smokers. Furthermore, if cancer did develop in smokers, it progressed significantly slower than in non-smokers. So what is to blame for this bizarre effect? Scientists think that the causes of precancerous lesions in mouths of smokers and non-smokers are actually different.

Precancerous mouth lesions in smokers are likely to develop because of environmental factors, such as, obviously, smoking. Meanwhile lesion is non-smokers can be caused by some genetic mutations. And so, it seems that genetically-caused lesions are more likely to become cancerous than those caused by smoking. Scientists encourage everyone, especially non-smokers, to take precancerous mouth lesions very seriously. Leigha Rock, lead author of the study, said: “If you see a lesion in a smoker, be worried. If you see a lesion in a non-smoker, be very worried. Don’t assume it can’t be cancer because they’re a non-smoker; our research indicates non-smokers may be at higher risk”.

Important thing to note is that smoking does not decrease the risk of mouth cancer – you should not think that people with lesions should start smoking. It is actually the other way around – smoking is a major cause of mouth cancers. But if you don’t smoke and find a lesion in your mouth, don’t hesitate – visit your doctor immediately.


Source: University of British Columbia

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