Oral cancer strikes more than 35,000 people in the United States each year. Because oral cancer is often not discovered until it is more advanced, there is less than a 50% survival rate five years after diagnosis.1 This rate hasn't improved significantly in the past 50 years because, until recently, the standard screening method (typically a visual and manual examination of the mouth, head and neck) had not changed.
Oral cancer can strike anyone, but the leading risk factors include smoking, chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol. In recent years, human papillomavirus (HPV) is thought to be an additional risk factor, leading to more cases in women and younger patients.
New screening tools may help to find oral cancer sooner. Light contrast screening allows oral cancer to be detected and treated earlier than in the past. Called fluorescence visualization, this test uses light to distinguish between healthy tissue and tissue that is potentially abnormal.
A brush biopsy is often done as a follow-up to light contrast or if there is an obvious area of suspicious tissue. A dentist uses a brush to take a tissue sample from the suspicious area and then sends it to a laboratory. If the results are positive, a full-scalpel (also called surgical or incisional) biopsy is performed.
Both screening tests are performed in addition to traditional manual screenings. If abnormal tissue is detected, the dentist will refer the patient for a full-scalpel biopsy to determine a definite diagnosis and possible treatment.
The information provided is for educational purposes only.
1. The Oral Cancer Foundation, last modified October 11, 2011