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The Business of Saving Lives: Dentistry and The Fight Against Oral Cancer

You may think of yourself as being in the business of cavities and crowns, but you’re also in the business of saving lives. April marks Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Instances of oral cancer are on the rise, and dentists play a pivotal role in its early detection. Since most people see their dentists more often than any other healthcare provider, you are positioned to be the first to spot the disease.
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
PUBLISHED: Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Some data indicate that oral cancer diagnoses in the U.S. rose by 61 percent from 2011 to 2015.

Dentists, whether they realize it or not, are on the frontline of the war against cancer. With the prevalence of oral cancer on the rise, dentists are positioned to provide patients with critical diagnostic care. Suddenly, dentists find themselves not in the business of cavities and crowns, but saving potentially countless lives.
In the United States, oral cavity squamous cell carcinoma is the most common cause of malignancy in all head and neck cancers, accounting for about 90 percent of cancers that are diagnosed in this anatomical region.1 It’s estimated that about 49,670 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with a form of oral cancer in 2017. Worldwide, oral cancer is the sixth most common form of cancer2, most often diagnosed in male patients and typically appearing after it has metastasized3.
Diagnosis of this form of cancer typically occurs about age 62, although slightly more than one-quarter of these types of cancers develop in younger patients3. Recently, there has been an increase in public awareness efforts regarding oral cancer and the role dentists play in screening for the disease.
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“We’re in a place in history that is unique: Americans, in general, have never been more interested in their own health,” says Brian Hill, founder and executive director of The Oral Cancer Foundation. “The interest in cancer screenings has become a normal part of our lives, and things that we normally didn’t think about 20 years ago, we’re regularly getting screened for now.
“The good news is that the American public is receptive to screening. Our government is also realizing that treatment is way more expensive than early discovery. Right now, we have an audience that wants information.”
Since the mid-1970s, the incidence of oral cancer has increased about 15 percent5, with a 0.5 percent annual increase in positive diagnoses1. According to some data, privately billed insurance claims in the U.S. related to oral cancer diagnoses rose by 61 percent from 2011 to 20156.
“There are publications that show the rate of oral cancer – not oropharyngeal cancer – in young patients is increasing,” says Brian Schmidt, D.D.S., M.D., Ph.D., an ADA spokesperson. “It’s hard to get exact numbers on this, but it seems oral cancers are increasing. We don’t yet understand the etiology of this.”
The term “oral cancer” can be misleading since it is often used as a single diagnostic term when discussing all cancers of the head and neck. It is important to distinguish between true oral cancers – those occurring in the oral cavity on the tongue, gums, buccal mucosa, or floor of the mouth – and oropharyngeal cancers that occur on the soft palate, the base of tongue, and the tonsils1. Squamous cell carcinoma can certainly develop in this region independently of any growth in the mouth itself1,4.
Story continues on the next page.

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