Posts for: March, 2019
A half million people are diagnosed every year with oral cancer. While other cancers are more prevalent, oral cancer is among the most dangerous with only a fifty percent five-year survival rate.
A major reason for this low rate is because this fast growing cancer is difficult to detect early — diagnosis comes far too often after the disease has already well advanced. In an effort to detect cancer earlier many dentists visually screen for oral abnormalities during checkups, especially patients over fifty, tobacco or heavy alcohol users, patients with a family history of cancer or a medical history of exposure to the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus, HPV-16.
If they detect an abnormality, the dentist often refers the patient to an oral surgeon or other specialist for a possible biopsy. In this procedure the surgeon removes a sample of the abnormal tissue, which is then examined microscopically for cancer cells. A biopsy remains the most effective way to diagnose oral cancer.
Because of the disease's aggressive nature, many dentists lean to the side of caution when referring patients for biopsy. As a result 90% of oral biopsies reveal no cancer. Reducing the number of biopsy referrals is highly desirable, especially for the patient undergoing the procedure. Tissue samples tend to be large to ensure complete detection of any cancer cells. Depending on the size and location of the sample, there may be a risk for loss of function or disfigurement.
A new screening tool using a sample of a patient's saliva could help reduce the number of biopsy referrals. Besides DNA, saliva also contains dormant genes called biomarkers that activate in response to the presence of a specific disease. This particular saliva test identifies those biomarkers for oral cancer if they're present.
A sample with a low score of biomarkers indicates no cancer present (with a statistical confidence of 99%). A medium or high score indicates cancer may be present, but only a biopsy can determine for sure. Using this test, dentists might be able to reduce the number of biopsy referrals and instead be able to employ watchful waiting in certain cases. Because of its simplicity and non-invasiveness, saliva screening could help identify oral cancer earlier.
Fans of the legendary rock band Steely Dan received some sad news a few months ago: Co-founder Walter Becker died unexpectedly at the age of 67. The cause of his death was an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. This disease, which is related to oral cancer, may not get as much attention as some others. Yet Becker's name is the latest addition to the list of well-known people whose lives it has cut short—including actor Humphrey Bogart, writer Christopher Hitchens, and TV personality Richard Dawson.
As its name implies, esophageal cancer affects the esophagus: the long, hollow tube that joins the throat to the stomach. Solid and liquid foods taken into the mouth pass through this tube on their way through the digestive system. Worldwide, it is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths.
Like oral cancer, esophageal cancer generally does not produce obvious symptoms in its early stages. As a result, by the time these diseases are discovered, both types of cancer are most often in their later stages, and often prove difficult to treat successfully. Another similarity is that dentists can play an important role in oral and esophageal cancer detection.
Many people see dentists more often than any other health care professionals—at recommended twice-yearly checkups, for example. During routine examinations, we check the mouth, tongue, neck and throat for possible signs of oral cancer. These may include lumps, swellings, discolorations, and other abnormalities—which, fortunately, are most often harmless. Other symptoms, including persistent coughing or hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and unexplained weight loss, are common to both oral and esophageal cancer. Chest pain, worsening heartburn or indigestion and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also alert us to the possibility of esophageal cancer.
Cancer may be a scary subject—but early detection and treatment can offer many people the best possible outcome. If you have questions about oral or esophageal cancer, call our office or schedule a consultation. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Oral Cancer.”