Is oral cancer really all that serious a health issue? The American Cancer Society estimates that in any given day, approximately 110 Americans will be diagnosed with this malady. One third of those diagnosed will be younger than age 55. Those are sobering figures, but the good news is that this type of cancer is more survivable than many other types – in fact, when it’s detected early, the five-year survival rate is more than 80%.
The problem with oral cancer is that frequently it’s not detected early. Late detection means that the five-year survival rate drops from 80% to a considerably less favorable 60%. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) estimates that 25% of people who receive a diagnosis of oral cancer will die due to late diagnosis and delayed treatment. Obviously, early detection of oral cancer is extremely important.
Are some people more at risk for oral cancer than others? Of course there’s a genetic component, as there is will all types of cancer, but lifestyle is also a huge factor in determining who is likely to get oral cancer. If you smoke or chew tobacco, or if you drink heavily, your risk of developing oral cancer is nine times as great as it is for non-users. Improper diet (not enough vegetables and fruits) also increases your risk. And excessive exposure to the sun can raise the possibility of your developing lip cancers.
Most people who develop oral cancer are older than 40, but the number of younger people being diagnosed is increasing. Experts believe that this is due to HPV16, the human papilloma virus that is transmitted through sexual activity. What that means is that everyone, not just older people, should be regularly screened for oral cancer.
How is Screening Done?
The easiest and most obvious way to examine a patient for oral cancer is by visually inspecting the mouth and surrounding area, including the lips and the tongue. We do this during your regular dental examination. The tissues both inside and outside your mouth will be examined for signs of cancer, and we’ll also look closely at the areas that aren’t always easy to see. A tactile exam may also be carried out, so that we can feel for any lumps that might be present in your mouth, throat, or face.
We might also make use of some high-tech equipment that can help us to detect oral cancer more easily. Basically, this involves using special lights, sometimes in combination with a dental rinse, that help us to locate diseased cells. The light is produced in specific wavelengths, and can help us to identify cancerous or pre-cancerous tissue.
If we find anything unusual during your oral examination, we may take a small sample of the tissues that appear to be affected, and send them to a laboratory so that a biopsy can be performed. This is the only way that you can know for sure if the tissue is cancerous. Fortunately, most discolorations, sores, or other questionable areas end up pronounced benign, but it’s always better to know for sure.
Early detection is extremely valuable when it comes to improving the rate of survival for oral cancer. We consider it our obligation to stay up-to-date in the current research, and to use the most effective systems available so that our patients can be assured of early detection.
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