Oral cancer kills 40 percent of those diagnosed within five years. If caught early, the survival rate is as high as 90 percent. Scarier still, more than 1 percent of U.S. adults will develop oral cancer at some point in their lives. Despite these sobering statistics, many patients aren’t screened regularly for the appearance of oral and pharyngeal cancers. According to Matthew Kim – chairman, founder and CEO of Vigilant Biosciences – only 29 percent of U.S. adults are screened by their dentist. Part of the oversight, he explains, is a widespread lack of awareness and understanding of the danger of oral cancer. His plan, in addition to increasing awareness for the general public, involves a novel diagnostic test that identifies patients as high risk of developing certain types of oral cancer.
Oral health providers are on the front lines of detecting oral cancer. Diagnosis must seem urgent and cost-effective for dentists and hygienists in order for it to succeed. Kim surmises that some dentists may not screen because they [falsely] believe they won’t find anything ominous in most patients. Others may shy away from it because the time spent and mental stress put on the patient, especially in the case of false positives, are not worth the potential benefit.
Because of the dramatic difference in prognosis when caught early, it makes sense that Matthew Kim’s other big push is increasing public understanding. We need to stress how important it is for dentists to check regularly. Patients should advocate for themselves to make sure they’re receiving consistent exams. Patients at high risk may even want to keep an eye out for suspicious-looking lesions at home, which they can report to their dentist. Things to look for include changes in denture fit, white or red patches that won’t wipe off, painless ulcerations, a sore or hoarse throat or changes that persist for more than 2 weeks.
Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week took place from April 2-9 this year. Part of this awareness campaign was to help patients understand their risk factors, such as tobacco, heavy alcohol use, poor nutrition and sleep habits, UV exposure and oral HPV. This last risk factor is insidious. An estimated 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers may be related to HPV infection, yet 59 percent of adults don’t identify it as a risk factor. Unfortunately four out of five people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime, so awareness is key.
OncAlert, Vigilant Bioscience’s new cancer-detecting saliva test, is going through FDA approval in the United States and is currently in use in Europe, the Caribbean, New Zealand and South Africa. Kim hopes it will make oral cancer screening in dental offices so easy that it becomes the norm. The test could be performed during hygiene visits, for example. Patients rinse with saline, spit into a container and wait five minutes for a result. Incorporating this practice into dental recall visits not only increases patient awareness, it also improves patient morale by trying to safeguard overall health.
OncAlert is meant to be easy and straightforward to use. Once it hits the market, Vigilant plans to target dentists and hygienists who teach, as well as reaching out to universities and local dental societies. Kim would love to see students learning to use these tools and apply them later in practice. As he explains, we – dental students, professionals, and now the advocates at Vigilant Biosciences – “are all part of a mission greater than ourselves. We are uniquely positioned to improve the standard of care. Take that responsibility and we can make a difference.”
~ Rachel Bush, Las Vegas ’18, electronic editor