Hopkins Doctor Urges Early Diagnosis To Avoid Cancer’s “Forgotten Killer”
On average, two Marylanders each day are diagnosed with potentially fatal oral cancers that are often curable if identified and treated early. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Office of Oral Health reports that the state ranks in the country’s top 10 for number of deaths caused by oral cancers. Nationally, statistics show that the death rate from these cancers is higher than those of cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, testicular cancer, and thyroid and malignant melanoma.
A sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal could be a warning sign of oral cancer, which kills more than 8,000 people a year. Of the 34,000 Americans newly diagnosed with oral cancer annually, only half will be alive in five years. According to the American Dental Association, early diagnosis and treatment could boost that rate to 75 or 80 percent.
John O’Brien, 70, who had not smoked a cigarette in 33 years, was adamant about maintaining proper oral hygiene. But, in 2006, O’Brien, a national sales manager for an advertising agency, father of four and a grandfather of five, found a small lump that turned out to be a cancerous tumor at the base of his tongue. After 45 radiation treatments and six chemotherapy sessions, O’Brien says he is grateful to be alive. “I was just in disbelief. Nobody wants to hear that they have cancer,” says O’Brien. "But, for me I was lucky because the doctors caught it quickly.”
“Often, oral cancer is not diagnosed until it’s advanced because symptoms—sore throat, non-healing ulcer, white or red patches on the gums or tongue, or a neck mass—are easy to dismiss as something less serious,” says Christine G. Gourin, M.D., associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Department of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery and director of the clinical research program in head and neck cancer. “But oral cancer can be life threatening mostly due to the fact that it’s detected too late.”
According to Gourin, smokers and tobacco users are at the highest risk. “Smokers are six times more likely than non-smokers to develop oral cancer, and those who use chewing tobacco also increase the risks of cancers of their cheek, gums, and inner surfaces of the lip, by 50 percent,” Gourin adds. Gourin also warns that frequent alcohol consumption significantly increases the risk of oral cancer by a factor of four.
Gourin and other experts say that while oral cancer is mostly linked to tobacco and alcohol use, oral cancer in non-smokers is a growing problem as well. Sun exposure is another risk factor, with nearly a third of patients with cancer of the lips having a history of outdoor work and prolonged exposure to UV radiation.
The American Cancer Society recommends that adults, especially smokers, tobacco users or consumers of high amounts of alcohol, check their mouth, gums and tongue monthly as a way of prevention, self-care and catching oral cancers in the early stages. Gourin suggests all adults ask their physicians or dentists to perform a head and neck exam at least once a year, and to personally pay close attention for any unusual symptoms in the mouth, such as sores that do not heal; a lump or thickening in the cheek or lip; white or red patches on the gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth; chronic sore throat; difficulty in chewing or swallowing; or a lump or mass in the neck.
In recognition of Head, Neck and Oral Cancer week, Mon. Apr. 21 through Fri. Apr. 27, Johns Hopkins Hospital is holding an oral cancer screening on Thurs., April 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the 6th floor of the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center located at 601 North Caroline St. The screening is FREE, but an appointment is necessary and can be made by calling 410-955-1080. No walk-ins accepted.
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