New Year's Resolution should include oral cancer screening

File photo: In addition to regular dental checkups, many dentists can now check for oral cancer.
File photo: In addition to regular dental checkups, many dentists can now check for oral cancer.

TUCSON, AZ - In recent months, Actor Michael Douglas, film critic Roger Ebert and baseball great Tony Gwynn have been diagnosed with oral cancer. It kills one American every hour, and virtually every adult is at risk.

Now, an FDA-approved glowstick technology helps dentists detect it. Tucson, Arizona-based Zila Pharmaceuticals is marketing a technology called Vizalite Plus which it says helps dentists screen for the deadly disease. (On the web - Vizilite Plus.)

There's an "epidemic" spike in oral cancer cases, according to specialists at Boston's Dana Farber Cancer Institute. They blame the human papillomavirus ("HPV"), which was formerly recognized as the major cause of cervical cancer.

"What you're seeing here is a five-fold increase in the numbers that we would expect," says Dr. Marshall R. Posner. He notes that at least 20,000 cases of oropharyngeal cancer (back-of-the-tongue cancers, most closely associated with HPV) are diagnosed in the U.S. yearly. Most of these victims are young men.

Most adults have been exposed to HPV. Doctors say it can be sexually transmitted, even through "French kissing" though doctors don't know yet why in some people, such a common virus develops into oral cancer.

Oral Cancer used to be an old man's disease, tied to tobacco and alcohol. Those are still recognized causes, but today, everyone, including young women and men, are getting this deadly disease.

Dentists say, "Just as we've gotten used to annual PSA tests, mammograms and Pap smears, we should be getting annual oral cancer exams."

  • 25% of cases affect people with no known risk factors.
  • Historically, 75% of cases were related to tobacco or alcohol use.
  • Oral cancer is as common as leukemia and claims more lives than either melanoma or cervical cancer.
  • The 5-year survival rate is only 57%, and the 10-year rate is under 50%.
  • It's horribly disfiguring and painful, unless it's detected early.
  • Sigmund Freud, Babe Ruth, John Gotti and President Grover Cleveland had it.
  • Cigar smoking increased 250% from 1993 to 1998, and heavy cigar use is particularly associated with oral cancer development.
  • Marijuana appears to cause oral cancer, particularly in younger patients.
  • Sexually transmitted HPV is an additional cause of oral cancer; HPV strains have been implicated in half of oropharyngeal cancers; the CDC says nearly 25 million women are infected with some form of HPV.
  • U.S. African-Americans and Caucasians, who have the highest oral cancer rates, are most likely to develop cancer of the tongue; those of Southeast Asian descent are more likely to develop the disease in the inner cheek; Filipino-American women have the highest incidence of cancer of the palate.

INFORMATION SOURCE: Zila Pharmaceuticals