A five-minute examination could be all it takes to save your life. Checking the mouth for oral cancer takes almost no time at all and it could help doctors spot the signs of the disease long before it is too late to treat it. While oral cancer is not as common in North America as it is in developing countries, tobacco and alcohol use drastically increase your risk of contracting this terrible disease. This means that people who smoke heavily may not only develop cancer of the lungs and esophagus, but also of the tongue as well.
This means that alcoholics not only have to worry about their livers, but now their mouths, too. The good news is that if the disease is caught soon enough, the tumors don’t have to be lethal. Oral cancer may not be obvious to the untrained eye, but doctors can detect lesions that have developed under the tongue. Mild, white patching of the tongue is a signal that oral cancer has started. However, patients normally don’t notice this. Only 36% of oral cancer cases are diagnosed when the disease is still at this early stage of treatment. This is close to the same percentage of colon cancer cases that are caught at this stage. The untrained person will have trouble noticing the signals their body is showing at this time. It’s only when patients see large, bumpy tissue and open wounds along the tongue that they are alerted to the problem. By then, treatment is much more difficult and less likely to be successful.
A recent study published in the Lancet showed that getting a five-minute visual exam of the mouth once every three years could reduce deaths from oral cancer by as much as 35%. The study looked at over 96,000 men who were at least 35 years old at the beginning of the trial. Those who were diagnosed with oral cancer were referred to other doctors and then sent for biopsies and treatment.
Understandably, the group receiving active screening for cancer had more diagnosed cases of the disease (205 compared with 158 in the control group). But at the end of the study, 10 fewer people died in the actively screened group. While this may not sound like much, it really adds up when you consider the amount of people in the world who are at a high risk of developing oral cancer. The researchers from this study predict that screening could save a minimum of 37, 000 people across the world from dying of oral cancer.