Making the Case—Immediate Biopsy to Spot Oral Cancer Early

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The American Cancer Society predicts that there will be an estimated 50,000 new cases of cancer in the oral cavity and oropharynx in 2017, with more than 80 percent of those cases being oral squamous cell carcinomas (OSCCs) or oropharynx squamous cell carcinomas (OPSCCs). The American Dental Association (ADA) responded to this dire statistic by releasing an updated version of their clinical practice guidelines, reemphasizing the importance of referring patients to immediate biopsy in cases of suspicious oral lesions. It is almost impossible to determine whether oral mucosal disease is malignant or benign just by examining it clinically. An immediate biopsy can help detect oral cancers giving you and your dentist the opportunity to prevent the manifestation and spread of oral cancers. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIH) supports this stance further by pointing out that early detection and treatment can drastically reduce the number of deaths from oral cancer.

Symptoms and warning signs to look out for

There are two types of lesions that could be early signs and a risk of becoming cancerous—these are leukoplakia (white lesions) and erythroplakia (red lesions). The NIH recommends keeping an eye on how these develop. If they persist for more than two weeks, you should consult your dentist and a biopsy should be performed to be able to set a definitive diagnosis and prescribe an optimal treatment plan.

Raising awareness is crucial

It’s important to know that you can discuss these symptoms with your dentist. Patients are often unaware that dentists are trained to check for other potentially cancerous symptoms, such as soreness, lumps, hoarse voice or swelling, or any other abnormalities in the mouth or throat. These could be early signs of oral cancer or human papillomavirus (HPV) infection-related cancers, and dentists will be able to refer their patients to the appropriate specialist when needed, and in best-case scenario, prevent cancer to manifest.

There are things that you can do to decrease your chances. The most common link to oral cancer is heavy drinking and tobacco use. However, over the past 20 years HPV infection has surpassed tobacco and alcohol as a major risk factor (for head and neck cancer), the ADA authors note, and they estimate that HPV infection causes approximately 75 percent of all OPSCCs identified today. It is also possible that a diet low in fruit and vegetables can play a part in developing the disease. And of course seeing your dentist for regular checkups and cleanings will help you keep a close watch on anything threatening to develop.

The ADA is currently working toward raising awareness both among dentists and their patients. Statistics demonstrate that by simply starting a dialogue on risk factors and symptoms to watch out for can save lives.

Source: Jonathan Richter, DDS, FAGD, of Cariodontal (310 E. Shore Rd., Ste. 101, Great Neck). For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 516-282-0310 or visit

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