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Early detection on the radar for oral cancer

Recognizing the importance of early detection and intervention in the battle against oral cancer, starting in 2006 one of the nation's largest insurers will cover brush biopsies.

"The mouth is considered to be an 'early warning system' for other medical conditions, as well as a potential contributor," said Karen Rohan, president of CIGNA Dental, which recently announced as of Jan. 1, 2006 it will cover brush biopsy for members enrolled in several of its dental plans.

Oral cancer is the sixth deadliest cancer in America. Currently only half of all patients diagnosed with oral cancer survive more than five years. The good news is that it's easier than ever to detect oral cancer early when the opportunity for a cure is great.

Oral cancer often starts out as a tiny, unnoticed white or red spot or sore in the mouth. It can affect any area of the oral cavity, including the lips, gums, cheek lining, tongue, and the hard or soft palate.

Other signs include:

  • a sore that bleeds easily or does not heal;
  • a change in color of the oral tissues;
  • a lump, thickening, rough spot, crust or small eroded area;
  • pain, tenderness or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips;
  • difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving the jaw or tongue;
  • a change in the way the teeth fit together.

Regular dental check-ups, including an examination of the entire mouth, are essential in the early detection of cancerous and pre-cancerous conditions. You may have a very small, but dangerous, oral spot or sore and not be aware of it.

Dentists often will recommend brush biopsy when they notice a spot or sore that looks harmless and does not have a clear cause.

Used to detect potentially dangerous cells when the disease is still at an early stage, brush biopsy is usually painless. The procedure entails a dentist using a small brush to take a tissue specimen, which is then sent to a laboratory for analysis to determine the presence of pre-cancerous or cancerous cells.

Talk to your dentist if you have concerns about oral cancer, and see your dentist for regular oral cancer screenings.

Please contact the ADA if you have questions about this article.

©2010 American Dental Association. All rights reserved. Reproduction or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the American Dental Association.

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