Many Americans Unaware of the Risks of Oral Cancer

December 20, 2000

New York (MedscapeWire) Dec 20 — A new survey by the New York County Dental Society (NYCDS) and OralScan Laboratories unveils key findings about what appears to be the next frontier in public health — oral cancer. Survey results found a significant lack of awareness among Americans of the dangers posed by oral cancer. More than 25 percent of oral cancer cases occur in people who have no known risk factors, such as tobacco or excessive alcohol use.

NYCDS and OralScan Laboratories conducted this nationwide telephone survey of more than 1,000 Americans 18 years and older to gauge their knowledge of oral cancer, risk factors, signs and symptoms so that proper education about the disease can begin.

"The mortality rate for oral cancer has not improved in the past 40 years," said Dr. Mark Mintzer, president of the NYCDS. "Fighting this disease must begin with educating the American public about oral cancer risk factors, signs and symptoms and the importance of visiting their dentists for an annual oral cancer exam."

Early detection is key to increasing the survival rate for oral cancer. In early stages, oral cancers are relatively innocuous and painless, and look similar to other common lesions or sores, making visual diagnosis difficult. According to survey findings, more than 900 respondents (91 percent) said that they do not recall ever having a small red or white sore or patch in their mouth that lasted more than a week. However, according to three published studies, between five and 15 percent of adults have a benign-appearing white or red sore in their mouth that could be precancerous. These very common lesions can represent the earliest, most curable stage of oral cancer.

The survey also found that 70 percent of Americans do not believe they are at risk for developing oral cancer. Further, of those surveyed, one in five (20 percent) incorrectly believe that only those who smoke, chew tobacco or drink alcohol are at risk for developing oral cancer. Although tobacco users (ie, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, pipes and cigars) and those who use or consume large amounts of alcohol are at greater risk for developing oral cancer, people of all races, and lifestyle habits are at risk for developing this devastating disease.

"If a lesion in the mouth doesn't disappear after five days or if white or red patches in the mouth are apparent, patients should schedule appointments with their dentists and ask about a new, painless procedure that can save their lives," said Dr. Mintzer. "Americans need to be educated about their risk for developing oral cancer and the importance of early detection, which is the only way to successfully fight the disease."

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