Oral Cancer Screening

By Catherine M. Fascilla, D.D.S.

In the past few years there has been a substantial rise in the number of cases of oral cancer. In 2007, there was an 11% increase. It is the sixth most common cancer worldwide with 35,000 cases annually in the U.S. The incidence of oral cancer is three times greater than cervical cancer with twice as many deaths. There are an estimated 7500 deaths.

While 75% of the patients are tobacco and alcohol users, the new risk factor is through exposure to the sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus. This virus is also associated with cervical cancer in women.

As with most cancers, early detection improves the survival rate and can result in treatment that is much less likely to have a negative impact on function and physical appearance. Unfortunately, the treatment of advanced oral cancers may require disfiguring surgery and aggressive chemotherapy with radiation. This may result in impaired speech and swallowing.

Many patients don’t realize that their regular dental or physical checkup may include an oral cancer screening. Your health professional is looking and feeling inside and outside the mouth for lumps or irregular tissue changes. These periodic visual exams are recommended by the American Cancer Society and the American Dental Association. However, visual screening may not allow you to detect cancer early enough as visual lesions are often advanced cases. Detection of these cases results in a five-year survival rate of 59%. Early detection raises the odds to 80%.

New non-invasive screening tests and medical devices have been developed to aid in early detection of abnormalities. These are used in conjunction with visual examinations and include rinses, dyes, and hand-held optical lights. The costs of the new tests are on average between $35-$65 annually.

If it has been a long time since you’ve seen your dentist or physician, you may want to consider making an appointment. Routine visits to the dentist are not only important for your dental health and health of your gums but it is an opportunity to detect oral cancer.

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