More than 600 of the 4,000 new cases of head, lip and neck cancers diagnosed every year in Australia, are oral cavity cancers. Of the oral cancers diagnosed, 90 percent are squamous cell carcinomas (SCC). All other types of oral cancer such as minor salivary gland malignancies, sarcomas, malignant odontogenic tumours, melanoma and lymphoma comprise less than 10 percent.
Oral cancer, although infrequent, is one of the most deadly and debilitating cancers with a mortality rate approaching 50%. Every day, at least three Australians are diagnosed with oral cancer.
Why is Oral Cancer So Deadly?
The high mortality rate is due to oral cancer giving minimal symptoms until it reaches its final, most deadly stage. People with late stage oral cancer, despite having to have a large portion of their neck, jaw, and tongue removed, have a low 5 year survival rate of only 10 percent. Life can be very difficult with talking and eating becoming much more challenging. There is also an inability to easily show facial expressions such as smiling, and to kiss loved ones.
Before it reaches the advanced stage, minimal symptoms may feel like ulcers or small lumps in the mouth. Such symptoms are commonly confused with simple trauma from eating – but if they last for over two weeks they should be regarded with suspicion, and a dental visit scheduled immediately.
Early Oral Cancer Pickup
At an early stage, symptoms are rare. Keen eyes and a dedicated oral cancer screening are needed for your dentist to pick up the small and vague signs of this cancer. Educated and proactive dentists may use new technology to assist in finding these signs. Special fluorescent lights with accompanying eyewear give the best chance for an early diagnosis of oral cancer.
If oral cancer is picked up at an early stage, it can be treated more simply and successfully. With much more minimal surgery, and possible radiotherapy, there is an 85-90 percent survival rate over 5 years.
For this reason, it is important for everyone, especially those with risk factors, to have a regular oral cancer screening with their dentist or hygienist.
The highest oral cancer risk factors are smoking and alcohol – these account for 75 percent of cases.
A large proportion of the remainder may be linked to people having had previous unprotected oral sex partners in the past, who have been exposed to or contracted the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), particularly type 16, a sexually transmitted infection. Of more than 100 different HPV types, HPV16 is the most dangerous and responsible for oral and cervical cancers.