As much as it pains me to admit it, the record of dentistry in dealing with oral cancer has been pretty dismal. In the U.S., over 30,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year and 8,000 will die from oral cancer. That is more than either melanoma or cervical cancer! The five-year survival rates for oral cancer have been in the range of about 50 percent for the last 40 years. Part of the problem has been the lack of early detection of cancerous lesions before they have metastasized. Thanks to new space-age technology, that is about to change! Dentists have long known that smoking and regular exposure to alcohol are risk factors for oral cancer. Huge strides have been made by dental professionals to help their patients discontinue use of tobacco products and to inform their patients to avoid mouth rinses that contain alcohol. By reducing their exposure to these primary risk factors, the development of cancerous lesions can be greatly reduced, but early detection is still essential.
Most dentists do exams for oral cancer. Many do not even tell their patients that this has been done or what findings, if any, result. In my office, we started making a direct report to our patients at the end of the dental exam appointment. I will turn to my assistant or hygienist and state clearly, "Oral cancer exam, everything appears normal," if those are the findings. Many patients are awakened from the sound nap they have drifted into from the routine dental exam by the sound of the word "cancer" and they will sit up straight and say, "What did you say?" I then explain to them I have done an exam for oral cancer and that everything appears to be normal in their mouth. Some have told me that no dentist has ever done that before.
In cases where a suspicious area is found, I will describe the lesion to my assistant and then ask for the OralCDx® kit, which is a tool for early detection of oral cancer lesions. This very simple test involves painlessly stroking a small brush over the surface of the lesion to collect cells from the three layers of tissue involved and placing them on a microscope slide. This slide is mailed to a special lab that uses a computer program adapted from "Star Wars" technology to perform a computer-assisted analysis with a microscope of all the cells on the slide. It can even tell the dentist if he did not collect a sample suitable for a diagnosis to be made. The visual exam findings are explained to the patient and they are given the option of having the very simple, noninvasive OralCDx test performed right then and there or returning for the test at another time. Any questions they may have are answered as soon as possible.
As I have expressed in previous articles, early detection of disease is the key to the most successful treatment. That is especially true when we are considering oral cancer. The history of treatment successes with this disease is dismal and has not changed for decades. The five-year, 50 percent survival rate is the same for all types of oral cancer. Pretty pathetic, if you ask me, for a disease that is rightly considered the primary responsibility for dentists to detect. That is a very poor record, and only tells half of the story. Due to the location of the lesions, the structures that are involved and the functions they perform on a daily basis, the treatment of this disease in an advanced stage is extremely disfiguring and debilitating. That means if you do survive the disease, you will not look so nice and may have a very difficult time trying to chew, smile or even speak properly. All of the facts surrounding the progression of this disease can only lead to one conclusion -- that it is one of the most important forms of cancer to be detected at its earliest stage to improve the survival rate and to limit its affect on the quality of life that we all want to enjoy. It is no longer necessary to look at a very small area of changed tissue in the mouth and "watch" it because we are afraid of recommending or having a surgical biopsy done.
The American Dental Association has recently committed to a public awareness campaign to encourage individuals to have regular oral cancer exams by their dentist. Please be on the look out for these reminders and do not forget to ask your dentist about doing the oral cancer exam. It is the responsibility of all individuals to take charge of their own health care. If you are reading this article, you have obviously taken the first step towards doing that. I commend you and await the opportunity to be of service to any party interested in being trained to provide this valuable service.
Remember, only a dentist can diagnose your dental problems and offer the right treatment plan for you. If you need a dentist, call us at 1-866-970-0441 to be connected with one today.