Oral Cancer Screenings

Early Detection Can Protect Patients.

In 2002, Bruce Paltrow, an acclaimed television and film director and producer, died after suffering for years from complications due to oral cancer. He was 58 years old. After Paltrow's death, Blythe Danner (an accomplished actress and Paltrow's wife), partnered with the Oral Cancer Foundation to raise awareness for early screening of the disease. In 2006, Danner told ABC News, "Because [the tumor] was hidden way back in [his]throat, it was hard to detect. [If he had] stage I or stage II, he'd still be with us, I think." Danner emphasized the need for early detection of oral cancer. She said, "Early detection, prevention, it just has to be out there much more, and it hasn't been out there in the mainstream media."

The Oral Cancer Foundation reports that fewer than 25 percent of those who regularly visit a dentist routinely receive an oral cancer screening. 

Dentist can play key roles in making screenings of oral cancer as common as mammograms and colonoscopies. With massive advertising campaigns in the past few decades, mammograms and colonoscopies have become household terms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 66 percent of women aged 40 and over have had a mammogram in the last two years and 65 percent of adults aged 50 to 75 have had a recent colonoscopy. In contrast, the OCF reports that fewer than 25 percent of those who regularly visit a dentist receive an oral cancer screening. Your patients are likely unaware how pervasive oral cancer is and that you can help them with early screenings. Here are some important facts and risk factors for you to know. 

ORAL CANCER - THE FACTS

Oral cancer (any cancer that originates in the mouth or throat) is the sixth most common cancer worldwide. Oral cancer includes mouth cancer, tongue cancer, tonsil cancer, throat cancer, and cancer in the middle part of the throat behind the mouth (the oropharynx). For 2016, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 48,330 people will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer. 

More than 8,500 Americans die from the disease each year. The OCF reports that "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)."

When caught early, the five-year survival rate for oral cancer is about 83 percent. This number drops to just 32 percent when the cancer is not discovered until its later stages, after it has begun to spread. 

According to the OCF, the death rate for oral cancer has been historically high because it is usually not discovered until late in development. In the early stages, when the cancer is more easily treatable, it is typically painless and symptomless. By the time a patient begins noticing symptoms, the cancer has often spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, and has grown deep into the tissues where it began. At that point, the prognosis is significantly worse. 

The key to prevention and succesful treatment of oral cancer is early detection. Changes in tissue that signal the beginnings of cancer can be easily seen and felt by a trained medical professional. The best way to screen for oral cancer is through visual and tactile exam. Because an estimated 60 percent of Americans visit dental practices once a year, dental professionals are in a great position to detect early signs of this cancer. Every person who enters a dental office represents an opportunity to catch oral cancer in its early stage. 

With shifting at-risk populations, it is now more important than ever to screen as many people as possible. On its website, the OCF reports that, "opportunistic screening of ALL patients must become the norm if the death rate is to be reduced."

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