April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month and Stephens’ Dentistry would love to invite you in for a screening to prevent the disease. While smoking and alcohol are the biggest risk factors; a large segment of oral cancer patients are young, healthy, and nonsmoking individuals due to the prevalence of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). The Center for Disease Control estimates that over 80% of the population will be affected by some strand of HPV. While 99% of these infections may be asymptomatic, there is a small chance a virus of this kind could result in oropharyngeal cancer.
Although they border each other, the oral cavity and oropharynx have different tissue and cell types that change how they are affected. The tissues of the floor of the mouth or the cheek can develop into very different types of cancer. These diseases could present themselves in swelling, change of color, numbness/loss of feeling, or difficulty chewing or swallowing.
At Stephens Dentistry we use the VELscope as an adjunctive device to our regular intraoral exam. The VELscope emits a blue light spectrum that normal, healthy tissue usually fluoresces under. Cells that are dead or dying do not emit the usual fluorescence, which appear black under the light and leads us to take a further look. If it is something common like a cheek bite or pizza burn, then we check it out and don’t give another thought. If we see anything that appears remotely suspicious under the VELscope, our first step is to take a picture of it and monitor it for several weeks. If the suspicious tissue either enlarges or changes color, than it would be a good time to have the tissue excised and biopsied.
Unfortunately the mortality rate associated with head and neck cancer is fairly high. Of the people newly diagnosed with the disease, only about 60% will liver longer than 5 years. If oral cancer is discovered early the 5 year survival rate jumps up to around 83%. However if the disease is discovered late (which it usually is), that 5 year survival rate drops to around 50%. The best defense is regular checkups and dentists that look for unhealthy changes in your tissue. Also it is very important to monitor your own oral health, particularly for changes in size or color of your tissue. If you ever have any questions or concerns about your soft tissue, please feel free to call us and come in for an exam.