Close to 37,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. It will cause over 8,000 deaths, killing roughly 1 person per hour, 24 hours per day. The 5 year overall survival rate for oral cancer is 52%, but when discovered early, it increases to 80-90%
The death rate associated with this cancer is particularly high not because it is hard to discover or diagnose, but due to the cancer being routinely discovered late in its development. Often it is only discovered when the cancer has metastasized to another location. Prognosis at this stage of discovery is significantly worse than when it is caught in a localized intraoral area.
Historically the majority of people are over the age of 40 at the time of discovery, however, it is now occurring more frequently in those under this age.
The ratio is two men for every women, which occurs twice as often in the black population than in whites.
Risk factors include tobacco use, alcohol consumption, persistent viral infections such as HPV, and continual trauma from appliances such as ill-fitting dentures. Those who both smoke and drink, have a 15 times greater risk of developing oral cancer than others, but many get the disease even though they do not drink or smoke.
One of the real dangers of this cancer, is that in its early stages, it can go unnoticed. It can be painless, and little in the way of physical changes may be obvious. The good news is however, that your dentist or doctor can, in most cases, see or feel the precursor tissue changes, or the actual cancer while it is still very small, or in its earliest stages. Common sites for cancer are the lips, the floor of the mouth, and the tongue.
Today there are digital detection devices such as the Velscope, that can detect early signs of abnormal tissue changes. Regardless of what method they use, it is important that your dentist do an oral cancer screening at every yearly cleaning appointment.