Sebastopol dentists explain how screening for oral cancer could save your life
If you could reduce your chance of dying from the sixth most common type of cancer, with a simple, painless test that takes only a few minutes, would you? That is the benefit of screening for oral cancer as part of your regular dental checkups. Dr. Silvano Senn and Dr. Toni Mann feel an ethical commitment to offer this service to patients of Whole Health Dentistry in Sebastopol.
Understanding oral cancer
“Cancer” is simply uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, causing damage to surrounding tissues. When this occurs on the cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard or soft palate, lips, pharynx (throat), sinuses, or tongue it is called oral cancer.
Men are about twice as likely as women to develop oral cancer, and risk increases over age 50. Other significant risk factors include:
- Tobacco – Any tobacco exposes oral tissues to carcinogens. A smoker (cigarette, cigar, or pipe) is six times more likely to have oral cancer than a nonsmoker. Smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco, snuff, or dip) increases risk 50-fold.
- Vaping – While there is not yet conclusive evidence that vaping increases risk of oral cancer, there are early indications that e-cigarette users experience cancer-related changes in oral tissues, similar to those of cigarette smokers.
- Alcohol – Heavy drinkers have about six times the risk of those who do not drink or drink in moderation. When alcohol and smoking are combined, risk is exponentially increased.
- Family history of cancer.
- Poor nutrition.
- Sun exposure – Especially during youth.
- HPV – Some strains of human papillomavirus are linked to oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma.
An oral cancer may present as:
- A lump, bump, swelling, or thickened tissue
- A crusty or rough spot
- Erosion of tissue
- White, red, or speckled patches that have a velvety texture
- An area that bleeds easily (for no apparent reason)
- A sore that resists healing
- A spot that feels tender or numb
- Persistent sore throat
- Chronic hoarseness or voice change
- Sensation that something is caught in the throat
- Difficulty with normal oral function – tongue or jaw mobility, chewing, swallowing, or speaking
- Change in denture fit
- Ear pain
- Unexplained weight loss
However, once these symptoms are obvious, the cancer has progressed. Detection of oral cancer at the earliest possible stage dramatically increases survival rate.
How serious is oral cancer?
Any diagnosis of cancer is serious, and warning signs should never be ignored.
An estimated 53,000 adults in this country will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer in 2019. The average age at diagnosis is 62. However, a trend is developing toward younger ages. Presently, about 25 percent of oral cancer diagnoses are in individuals younger than 55.
Nearly 11,000 of those diagnosed with oral cancer will not survive. The overall five-year survival rate is 65 percent, primarily because most oral cancers are not detected until the disease has spread to surrounding tissues or organs.
However, the first good news is that with early-stage diagnosis, the five-year survival rate improves significantly to 84 percent. In addition, early treatment of oral cancers results in less tissue destruction, for reduced scarring and functional impact.
The next good news is that with advanced oral cancer screening techniques, soft tissue abnormalities can be detected and investigated much sooner than through conventional visual examination.
Screening for oral cancer: A painless procedure in Sebastopol
The doctors at Whole Health Dentistry recommend VELscope oral cancer screening annually for adult patients, or as part of regular bi-annual dental checkups for patients in higher risk categories.
VELscope is a light-based detection system. The epithelial cells in the mouth and stroma (supporting tissues) are illuminated with a 400-460 nm blue light. As the device fluoresces soft tissues, abnormal morphology appears as darker spots – long before changes would be visible to the naked eye.
It is important to understand that VELscope is an oral cancer screening tool – not a definitive diagnosis. Generally, if the dentist identifies areas of concern using VELscope, they are re-checked in two weeks. Why? Sometimes benign lesions such as healing ulcers, cold sores, or canker sores may show up in screening. If the abnormality persists, the dentist will recommend biopsy, lab testing, and diagnosis by a physician.
The best way to protect yourself from the potentially devastating effect of oral cancer is to be mindful on a daily basis of signs of the condition, and to make screening part of regular dental checkups. VELscope is painless, noninvasive, drug-free, and most importantly, effective.