Public perceptions about oral cancer
Oral cancer are on the rise in the US, yet new survey shows Americans largely unaware of major risk factors.
While the subject of sex might grab the attention of many Americans, most do not realize that a sexually-transmitted virus is the fastest-growing risk factor for oral cancer, a dangerous disease that is often caught in the late stages, when the five-year survival rate is less than 50 percent.
New results from a national survey, conducted by Kelton on behalf of the Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF), show that more than four in five Americans understand that smoking (83 percent) and chewing tobacco (83 percent) are risk factors. However, the survey also reveals that Americans remain in the dark about other potential causes of oral cancer, including alcohol consumption and the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection. OCF conducted the survey to establish a baseline of public understanding for all stakeholders concerned with reducing the incidence of oral cancer, and to bring light to the need for increased education about the growing threat posed by the disease.
The survey shows that women tend to be slightly more aware of the risk factors of oral cancer than men. Forty percent of women and 33 percent of men correctly recognize alcohol consumption as a risk factor for oral cancer, but less than 30 percent of both genders realize that a sexually transmitted virus is a causative factor for the disease.
This data supports the current consensus that awareness of oral cancer and early discovery measures is low, and that most Americans do not recognize that the profile of the oral cancer patient has evolved from heavy smokers and drinkers to now include anyone who is sexually active.
"Oral cancer takes the life of one person an hour, and for those who do survive it can be severely disfiguring and debilitating," said Brian Hill, founder and executive director of the Oral Cancer Foundation and a stage 4 oral cancer survivor. "It's one of the few types of cancer that hasn't experienced a significant decline in fatalities over the past several decades. The main reason is that it's normally discovered in late stages, when the five-year survival rate is less than 50%. To reverse this trend, we need to create awareness that virtually everyone over the age of 18 is potentially at risk and hence in need of an opportunistic annual oral cancer screening."
OCF is currently organizing an extensive effort to promote "Oral Cancer Awareness Month" in April and encourage dental and medical practices throughout the US and Canada to offer free oral cancer screenings during the month. Several companies and organizations are co-sponsoring OCF's efforts, including LED Dental, manufacturer of the VELscope Vx oral cancer screening system. The OCF survey was funded in part by a generous grant from LED Dental.
"Because people are not aware of the risk factors, they are not taking a proactive approach to screening and early detection of oral cancer, which is highly survivable in early stages," said Hill. "It's as simple as getting an oral exam from a dental or medical professional, which is something we are encouraging everyone to do annually. Exams are quick, painless and non-invasive, and the peace of mind they offer is invaluable."
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 40,000 Americans will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2012. This is the fifth year in a row in which there has been an increase in the incidence rate of oral cancers. When found at early stages of development, oral cancer patients have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate. Unfortunately, the majority are found as late-stage cancers, for which the survival rate and long-term outcomes are poorer.
There are two main reasons for the typically late detection of this disease. The first is the fact that early stage oral cancer is often not apparent to the naked eye and is not a source of pain or discomfort to the individual. The second is the fact that people don't realize they should be getting screened regularly for oral cancer, largely because not enough dental and medical professionals are making opportunistic oral cancer screenings a part of their patients' annual health check-ups.
Oral cancer involves not only a high mortality rate, but high levels of morbidity as well. Survivors often spend the rest of their lives dealing with severe facial disfigurement, serious eating or speaking impairments, and other traumatic sacrifices in their quality of life.
"The biggest irony here is that the survey revealed that people spend hundreds of dollars a year on their smiles, yet don't know if they've ever had an oral exam for a disease that can be incredibly disfiguring or even deadly," said Hill. "Oral cancer exams can literally save your life or prevent you from a lifetime of disfigurement, and yet very few patients are aware of the need for screening, and too few dental and medical practices are making screenings a mandatory part of their annual check-ups. Changing those dynamics is our highest priority."