What You Should Know About Oral Cancer

healthy teeth

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Here’s what you should know about this all too common cancer and what can do to help reduce your risk.

According to the American Dental Association, approximately 39,000 Americans annually are affected by oral and pharyngeal cancer and about 8,000 people die per year. Men are about twice as likely to contract oral cancer as women, and one in 92 adults will be diagnosed at some point in their lifetime.

Some of the biggest risk factors for oral cancer are tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, or even worse — the combination of the two. Additionally, HPV 16, a strain of human papillomavirus that can be prevented with the HPV vaccine, can spread through oral sex and lead to oral cancer. Increased age, diet, and sun exposure are also believed to be factors.

It’s no surprise that research suggests gum disease also contributes to oral cancer, considering the many other health concerns it has been linked to. Research published in 2014 indicates that byproducts of the bacteria that cause gum disease may play a role in the development of Kaposi’s sarcoma in the mouth. Kaposi’s sarcoma is a type of cancer that can occur in several areas of the body, including the mouth. The results of the study suggest that the fatty acids produced by pathogenic oral bacteria can cause the Kaposi’s sarcoma herpes virus to switch from latency to expression. Yet another reason to take care of your gums!

The Importance of Early Detection

Oral cancer spreads quickly, so early detection is crucial. Your regular dental checkup is the ideal time to get yourself screened for oral cancer. Dentists can perform quick, painless oral cancer screenings by examining the mouth and throat for symptoms of oral cancer like red or white patches, lumps, or swollen lymph nodes. The latest diagnostic technology available involves the use of light to identify the abnormal development of tissues, organs, or cells early in development. The VELscope is an example of such a tool and can highlight abnormalities inside of the mouth in as little as two minutes.

Early detection through routine screenings has proven to be one of the most effective ways to combat cancer. This has been seen as cases of prostate, cervical, and breast cancer have declined with the rise of annual screenings. Sadly, oral cancer is one of the only cancers which has not seen a significant increase in survival rates in the past 30 years. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, only 15 percent of people who visit a dentist regularly receive oral cancer screenings. This number is not nearly high enough. Given the technology and awareness that is now out there, there is no reason that oral cancer mortality rates should not also be declining. If you think you might be at risk, ask your dentist at your next appointment if regular screenings might be helpful.

New research has been published this year about the use of fluorescence visualization (FV), also known as VELscope technology, in oral cancer surgeries. The data suggest that the use of FV significantly improves the accuracy of removing cancerous tissue by helping surgeons to better visualize the area, which in turn, leads to reduced local recurrence of the disease. Dr. David Gane, CEO of LED Medical Diagnostics Inc., said he “expect[s] the results of this landmark study to accelerate the penetration of the VELscope into dental offices globally.”

Next time you go to the dentist, ask if an oral cancer screening could be helpful for you. Fluorescent visualizations may also help detect early stage cancers, so ask your dentist if a workup with this device might be appropriate based on your dental history and risk factors. History has shown that public awareness and improved early detection are the best ways to stop cancer in its tracks and pave the way for a healthier future.