Bald Patches in Beard - Harbinger of Cancer?
January 30, 2011 6:53 PM   Subscribe

YANMD but: can a bald patch in the beard be an indicator of oral cancer? More detail below.

Dad died a month ago of cancer in his neck, jaw, and under his tongue. I watched oozing wounds in his face get worse and worse until the end. The wounds started out as just two holes, and didn't appear until after he began radiation treatment.

I have two bald patches in my beard in just about the exact same locations as Dad's initial wounds. They have always been there. Dad and I have *extremely* similar features. Like clones almost.

Before they discovered that it was cancer, his initial complaint was a bump under his tongue, and when it didn't go away they guessed it was an infected saliva gland. I get bumps under my tongue sometimes too, maybe after certain acidic foods, but they pop easy like a pimple and I forget about it. Had an infected saliva gland once but that was long ago.

One big difference is that he was a (lifelong) *hard* drinker and chain smoker. I'm neither. I would SOOOOO like to relax with my pipe a little (just now and then), but every time I think about it, I think of the bald patches in my beard and my Dad's face deteriorating in the same places. And how he lived for months without the ability to swallow or the luxury of eating food like we eat. And much more as you can imagine.

So is there any connection? Has there ever been a study about this kind of thing?
posted by rahnefan to Health & Fitness (9 answers total)
Oral cancers begin inside the mouth and are routinely screened for by dentists and hygienists. Your dentist/hygienist can and will show you how to do oral self-examinations for suspicious lesions, lumps and bumps.
Skin cancers are different, so it is not likely that your bald patches on your beard are a manifestation of an intraoral cancer, but if those patches are of an unusual color, suddenly change shape, size, or become placquey the you should have them checked by a physician or dermatologist.
Drinking and smoking are big contributors to intraoral cancers, but so is family history, so the pipe is probably not a great idea. in addition to the carcinogens from tobacco, the heat of the stem over time is causative for lip cancer.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:43 PM on January 30, 2011

Weird. One of my father's friends died from oral cancer. Like many Sarajevan men, he had a beard. And I remember being sort of weirded out by obvious bald patches in his beard. On the other hand, apparently, bald spots have a genetic component . . . it may mean nothing.

This man died fairly young (I must have been ten, and he was more or less my father's age, so probably in his thirties.) I don't remember whether he smoked cigarettes or pipes, but only that my mother warned me against ever smoking when he died (which is sort of a rare thing there, too - a much bigger percentage of people there smoke, compared to America.)

I've also been told that pipe smokers are more likely to get oral cancer, while cigarette smokers are more likely to get lung cancer - due to how the smoke is handled (inhaled or not), and possibly, like OHenryPacey says, due to the heat of the stem. Obviously, the smart thing would be not to smoke, particularly as there's a family history.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:01 PM on January 30, 2011

One of my professors at the uni smoked a pipe. Other than that, he was athletic, good diet and no obvious risk factors. He died of throat cancer. Which developed on the side he habitually kept his pipe in. Possibly something to do with swallowing the toxic runoff from the pipe. I hate to be a killjoy, but I'd give up the pipe, if my father died of mouth cancer. That's anecdata, but there are also studies showing greater cancer among pipe smokers.

"Perhaps the most serious oral condition that can arise is that of oral cancer. However, smoking also increases the risk for various other oral diseases, some almost completely exclusive to tobacco users. The National Institutes of Health, through the National Cancer Institute, determined in 1998 that "cigar smoking causes a variety of cancers including cancers of the oral cavity (lip, tongue, mouth, throat), esophagus, larynx, and lung."[95] Pipe smoking involves significant health risks,[103][104] particularly oral cancer.[105][106]"
posted by VikingSword at 8:29 PM on January 30, 2011

If you do decide to get checked out, go to a dentist. I found a bump on my gum and immediately headed to my GP. He was like "they don't teach us about the mouth in school, go see a dentist." The dentist took a look, took an x-ray, commended me for coming in, but said that happily what was happening was bone regrowth (I had teeth removed for braces when I was younger). So it's not always bad news.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:36 PM on January 30, 2011

Stress can cause patches or albino spots in the beard as well.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:03 PM on January 30, 2011

I would just like to mention that bald patches in the beard are by no means uncommon... assuming they're not really large or something. Beyond that I am not qualified to say.
posted by Decani at 7:36 AM on January 31, 2011

Ah, just go ahead and throw out the whole bald patch in the beard issue. Just throw that out it is crazy. It might be pure coincidence or it might have some underlying causation that is unrelated to the causation of cancer (i.e. whatever it is that physiologically makes those spots susceptible to baldness also made them susceptible to whatever caused the sores but had nothing to do with what caused the cancer.

Maybe there is a genetic predisposition. It is possible. If it exists it is not determinable from physiognomy. The reason you are dwelling on this is because it drags your mind to thinking about seeing your father's wounds and from there to the other painful realities of his disease. The connection is a mental and emotional one. Which is totally normal but recognize it as such and try not to let apprehension overtake your life

Smoking and drinking together have the greatest environmental impact on oral cancer rates and it is thought the effects may be synergistic. Whether or not there was a genetic component your father's habits were a recipe for oral cancer.

The question of the impacts of very minimal smoking have come up again and again and I just don't think there is an answer. The effects of smoking are cumulative so the less you smoke the less of an impact it is going to have and none is obviously the best bet in the absence of concrete evidence. Nobody can tell you it is safe to smoke any amount because that information, at least as far as I've been able to determine, just doesn't exist.

Get screened regularly at your dentist, it is a trivial process, realize that you aren't doomed to oral cancer any more than I am doomed to lung cancer just because my grandpa died from it - he smoked a pack a day from age 12 to 65. Be aware of your risks, do everything sensible to promote early detection just in case.
posted by nanojath at 9:46 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your father's hair loss and open wounds were most likely due to the radiotherapy. Drinking alcohol and smoking are big risk factors for oral cancer. Also, oral cancer is not skin cancer. If you had oral cancer that had spread locally to your skin it is highly unlikely that the only sign/symptom would be hair loss. This isn't medical advice, talk to your doctor if you're concerned.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 1:52 PM on February 1, 2011

Thank you everyone, especially the one who PM'd me.
posted by rahnefan at 5:55 AM on March 4, 2011

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