Ramadan, the unsung ally in the fight against oral cancer

Millions of Muslims worldwide are observing Ramadan, where they fast, reflect, and self-transform. Yet, beyond its spiritual benefits, the holy month presents a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on an often-overlooked health issue – oral cancer.

Oral cancer, encompassing cancers of the mouth, lips, and tongue, poses a significant health challenge globally. Lifestyle choices such as tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption are among its leading risk factors.

In Malaysia, there were 826 new cases of oral cancer diagnosed in 2022, with 440 deaths recorded the same year. Ramadan’s period of fasting inadvertently results in a healthier lifestyle that promotes the prevention of this deadly disease. The holy month encourages a detoxification process. By abstaining from smoking and alcohol from dawn till dusk, individuals naturally decrease their exposure to some of the primary risk factors associated with oral cancer.

The emphasis on self-discipline and control during Ramadan extends to dietary habits. Ramadan teaches us moderation and mindfulness in consumption, principles that align closely with cancer prevention guidelines. The pre-dawn meal (sahur) and the evening meal (iftar) are opportunities for nourishment and hydration, but they also serve as a reminder of the importance of making healthy food choices.

Choosing fruits and vegetables, apart from sweet ‘kuih’ for your iftar, can bolster the body’s defences against oral cancer. Studies showed that consumption of foods like fruits, vegetables, turmeric, and green tea has been associated with a reduced risk of oral cancer. Conversely, processed meat and fried foods may increase the likelihood of developing oral cancer.

In addition to lifestyle modifications, the spirit of self-purification during Ramadan and the desire to be closer to Allah SWT encourage individuals to pay closer attention to their health, including oral health. Prophet Muhammad SAW stated in a hadith, “A strong believer is better and is more beloved to Allah than a weak believer,” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Qadr, Hadith 2664), implying that the healthier you are, the better equipped you are to worship Allah.

Ensuring our mouth is healthy, and free of cancer is therefore pivotal. Regular self-examination of the mouth is crucial for the early detection of oral cancer.

One can perform self-examination of the mouth with these simple steps:

  • Begin by looking in the mirror and checking for any lumps on your face or neck area, as these could indicate swelling or growths that require further investigation.
  • Evert your lips and inspect them for any abnormalities, such as unusual colours, ulcers, or swelling.
  • Examine both sides of your inner cheeks for irregularities like white, red-white, or red patches, bumps, or ulcers, using your fingers to gently pull each cheek aside. Slightly tilt your head back to get a clear view of your palate and look for any unusual spots or lesions. Continue by placing the tip of your tongue against your palate to examine the surface underneath your tongue for growths, colour changes, or other abnormalities.
  • Inspect the lateral surfaces of your tongue by moving it from side to side, carefully looking for any changes in texture or colour.

Ramadan can be a powerful force for transforming you spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. By embracing the principles of moderation, mindfulness, and self-discipline, this holy month can be a catalyst for lasting positive change in the fight against oral cancer.

Dr Nur Fauziani Zainul Abidin and Associate Professor Dr Zuraiza Mohamad Zaini are from the Department of Oro-Maxillofacial Surgical and Medical Sciences, Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Malaya.