A New Screening Tool Can Catch Oral Cancer Early

On the list of things to get scared about, oral cancer probably doesn’t rate very high. But maybe it should.

Michele Bender

As a health writer, I’m constantly learning new and amazing ways to take care of my body. But I also spend a lot of time worrying that I will get whatever condition I’m writing about. An assignment on heart disease gives me palpitations. One on breast cancer has me doing self-exams every hour on the hour. The plus side of this version of hypochondria is that I make sure to get check ups hoping to get a clean bill of health on whatever body part is of concern. So when I heard about a new test for oral cancer I was eager to make an appointment.

This disease, which can occur in the lips, tongue, mouth and throat, was one that I’d never thought – I mean, worried – about before. Then I did a little research. Those at high risk are 40 years or older and people of any age who use tobacco, drink more than one alcoholic beverage daily or have the HPV virus. I also read the stats: almost 35,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year and 8,000 people will die from this disease. I learned that celebs like George Harrison, Humphrey Bogart and Lana Turner suffered from this disease and that you don’t have to be a tobacco user to get it. Yikes!

Armed with this info, I called my dentist to ask why he never checked for oral cancer. He assured me that he did check and once he described how, it came back to me. I recalled how he’d stretch my lips with his latex-clad fingers and peer into my mouth. (Funny how I never knew what he was doing or thought to ask).  What he didn’t offer was a new screening tool, called ViziLite, that can catch oral cancer before it’s visible with the naked eye. Since the disease’s high death rate is often attributed to late detection and 90 percent of oral cancer is curable if you catch it early, I was eager to open wide.

I made my appointment at the office of Lana Rozenberg, DDS, a cosmetic and general dentist in New York City who was one of the first in the city to offer this screening tool. Dr. Rozenberg did a visual exam of my mouth. Then she instructed me to rinse with a cup full of cleansing solution, which adheres to tissue in the mouth to highlight abnormalities. Though Dr. Rozenberg said the solution was raspberry flavored. it tasted like vinegar to me. Next she turned off the overhead lights and peered into my mouth with a special blue light. “Healthy tissue that’s been treated with the cleansing solution absorbs the light and looks dark, while abnormal tissue looks white,” she explained. (Abnormal tissue doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got oral cancer, but it does need to be checked further.)

Though ViziLite isn’t in every dental office, it’s getting there. “Years ago the Pap smear wasn’t standard care, but eventually doctors realized how crucial it was and made it part of a routine check-up,” says Dr. Rozenberg. “The same thing will happen with this. Eventually it will be a routine part of your dental checkup.” This is already the case in Dr. Rozenberg’s office –which was good luck for three of her patients who had early signs of oral cancer that a visual exam wouldn’t have spotted.

Some insurance companies may cover the cost of this treatment but even if they don’t, its average $75 price tag is worth the peace of mind –at least for me.  When I got a clean bill of oral health, I skipped out of Dr. Rozenberg’s office feeling a weight off my shoulders. It was another preventative exam that I could check off my list before heading back to my desk to finish  a piece on diabetes. That is, after I popped by my M.D.’s office for a blood glucose test.

Go to ViziLite to find a dentist who uses it.




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