Oral cancer is often ignored because people falsely believe that they get the disease only if they drink heavily or smoke. I don’t drinking excessively, nor do I smoke, but 15 years ago I was one of the 35,000 people diagnosed with oral cancer each year in the United States.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and I hope sharing my personal story will help health insurance agents and brokers understand the importance of oral health screenings and encouraging clients to build relationships with their dentists and primary care physicians.
Oral cancer (oral cavity and pharynx) is one of the deadliest cancers with a 61% 5-year survival rate, according to National Cancer Institute data. In contrast, prostate cancer has a nearly 100% 5-year survival rate, according to the institute.
The 5-year survival rate for oral cancer has not improved significantly in the past 50 years because, until recently, the standard screening method had not changed – typically a visual and manual examination of the mouth, head and neck. This method often led to first discovery at advanced stages of oral cancer.
Today, light contrast screening expands upon visual and manual examination, which may detect oral cancer and treat it earlier than in the past. This test uses light to distinguish between healthy tissue and potentially abnormal tissue. A brush biopsy is often done as a follow-up to light contrast screening or if there is an obvious area of suspicious tissue. Any abnormality, discovered either through a visual exam, light contrast screening or brush biopsy, will likely result in a referral to an oral surgeon who will probably recommend a surgical (also called incisional) biopsy, still the “gold standard” for making a final diagnosis of oral cancer.
It’s important for more dental plans to cover annual oral cancer screenings to increase early detection. Visiting the dentist at least twice each year is also important in detecting oral cancer and other major illnesses.