Zapping Oral Cancer
This year, more than 34,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oral cancer -- a cancer that has a higher death rate than cervical cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma, or skin cancer. Survival rates are not improving; but now, a new treatment may give doctors a way to stop oral cancers before they start.
They're often detected in a routine dental or doctor's exam … red or white lesions called leukoplakia that can turn into serious, even deadly oral cancers.
"I do happen to know people that have died of this kind of cancer and so we watch it very closely," Mike Hagerman, a former smoker and a two-time oral cancer survivor, told Ivanhoe.
Now, Hagerman's leukoplakia is back. This time, he's part of a study testing a new photodynamic laser treatment designed to eliminate precancerous cells.
"When the laser fires onto the lesion, it emits light at a very specific frequency that causes oxygen radicals that destroy the lesion, make it go away," Stuart Wong, M.D., a medical oncologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, explained to Ivanhoe.
Tested on the hand or used in the mouth on actual lesions, researchers say the laser doesn’t hurt. It’s a preventive measure that doctors say could save lives.
"There is some emerging data that the better we can kill off these early precancerous lesions, that that might translate later down the road many, many years to a decreasing in the development of cancers and that's the goal," Dr. Wong said.
Oral cancer has a five year survival rate of less than 50 percent. Doctors say early detection can be crucial. Check your mouth regularly. If you see a red or white spot or feel something irregular, get it checked immediately
"I'm going to have to be aware of it for the rest of my life," Hagerman said; but he hopes with good medical care and a little vigilance, he can stay cancer free.
Even if you don't smoke, you can get oral cancer. Recent research shows the fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population are non-smokers, under the age of 50. Overall, men are at higher risk for oral cancer than women. Risk factors increase over age 40, for men and women.