Oral Cancer Screening
THE 2-MINUTE TEST THAT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and Dr. Chris Harper and Dr. Aaron George of Total Dental Care wants you to know about the 2-Minute test that could save your life. It’s an oral cancer screening, and it could literally be the difference between life and death.
Close to 40,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. It will cause over 8,000 deaths, killing roughly 1 person per hour, 24 hours per day. Of those 40,000 newly diagnosed individuals, only slightly more than half will be alive in 5 years. The death rate for oral cancer is higher than that of cancers which we hear much more about, such as cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, laryngeal cancer, cancer of the testes and thyroid, or skin cancer.
Why is the death rate so high?
Like many other cancers, late detection is the primary reason that mortality rates for oral cancer are so dismal. “Oral cancer often produces no pain or symptoms in its early stages, so it is often not noticed by the patient” says Dr. Harper. Often oral cancer is only discovered when the cancer has metastasized to another location, most likely the lymph nodes of the neck. Prognosis at this stage of discovery is significantly worse than when it is caught in a localized area. For this reason, it’s vitally important to see your dentist regularly for a complete oral exam, including oral cancer screening.
I don’t smoke; am I really at risk for oral cancer?
While tobacco use is certainly one factor that increases a person’s risk of developing oral cancer, there are others. Age is one such risk factor; historically, the majority of people diagnosed with oral cancer are over the age of 40. And due to the proliferation of the human papilloma virus number 16 (HPV-16), it is now occurring more frequently in younger patients. Chronic excessive alcohol consumption and family history of oral cancer are also risk factors.
Are there warning signs I should look for?
Early stages of oral cancer may look like a white or red patch of tissue in the mouth, or a small hardened ulcer which looks like a common canker sore. “Because there are so many benign tissue changes that occur normally in your mouth, it is important to have any sore or discolored area of your mouth, which does not heal within 14 days, looked at by a professional” says Dr. Harper. Other symptoms include: a lump or mass which can be felt inside the mouth or neck; pain or difficulty in swallowing, speaking, or chewing; any wart-like mass; hoarseness which lasts for a long time; or any numbness in the oral/facial region. A unilateral persistent ear ache can also be a warning sign.
What can I do to protect myself?
An annual oral cancer exam performed by your dentist can dramatically improve the chance that oral cancer will be detected while there’s still time for successful treatment. “Dentists have been doing a visual and tactile exam for oral cancer for many years; but by the time an oral cancer lesion is visible to the naked eye, the cancer is often already at stage 3 or 4”, says Dr. Harper. “With continuing advances in dental technology, there are now screening aids that can dramatically improve the efficacy of these exams” says Harper.
One of these technologies is the VELscope device, which is used at Total Dental Care of Guntersville. The VELscope emits an ultraviolet light, which allows the dentist to see precancerous and cancerous areas that might not be visible to the naked eye. Harper says “It takes just two minutes and is completely painless; there is no reason not to have this test”.
Dr. Harper and Dr. George both recommend an annual oral cancer screening for all adult patients, or more often for at risk patients. The exam can be done during your regular six-month cleaning appointment. To schedule an oral cancer screening with Dr. Harper or Dr. George, call Total Dental Care at 582-2248. To learn more about oral cancer, visit www.oralcancerfoundation.org.