Oral cancer kills one American every hour, and it is the only cancer that has increased every year for the past 6 years, due in large part to HPV related cancers.
It just so happens that April is Oral Cancer awareness month, so let’s gain some awareness shall we? The following are some revealing statistics, compliments of the Oral Cancer Foundation.
Close to 43,250 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. It will cause over 8,000 deaths. Of those newly diagnosed individuals, only slightly more than half will be alive in 5 years. (Approximately 57%) This is a number which has not significantly improved in decades. The death rate for oral cancer is higher than that of cancers which we hear about routinely such as cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, laryngeal cancer, cancer of the testes, and endocrine system cancers such as thyroid, or skin cancer (malignant melanoma).
Historically the death rate associated with this cancer is particularly high not because it is hard to discover or diagnose, but due to the cancer being routinely discovered late in its development.
Another obstacle to early discovery is the increasing incidence of a virus you may have heard of, HPV, which is transmitted through saliva, sexual and skin to skin contact and is the cause of the growing numbers of new cancer diagnoses. It used to be that heavy smokers and drinkers were the main group of focus when it came to screening. But, because of HPV that is changing. 40% of new oral cancer diagnoses are young, non-smokers with no previous history of cancer.
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 intra oral area. Besides the metastasis, at these later stages, the primary tumor has had time to invade deep into local structures.
Oral cancer is particularly dangerous because in its early stages it may not be noticed by the patient, as it usually grows without producing pain or symptoms they might readily recognize, and because it has a high risk of producing second, primary tumors. This means that patients who survive a first encounter with the disease, have up to a 20 times higher risk of developing a second cancer.
All that said, early detection is key. I have always performed an Oral Cancer screening through visual examination and palpation, which is just a fancy word for feeling with my hands. But as we now know that may not be enough. That’s why we have invested in some pretty cool technology to screen and hopefully catch the process at a much earlier stage. Through the power of fluorescence we are able to identify cells that are “breaking bad” before they would show signs to the naked eye. This 2 minute, completely painless and non-invasive exam should be performed by your dentist at least once a year. I have included a link to our website with some more information about the screening process.
During the month of April we’ll be offering complimentary Oral Cancer screenings to our patients, and members of the community. So please, whether your dental home is with us, or elsewhere, insist that you receive a comprehensive screening annually.