The ADA recently announced an expansion to its policy on oral cancer detection recommending that dentists and dental hygienists perform routine examinations for oral cancer includingoropharyngeal cancer for all patients.
Passed by the ADA House of Delegates in September, this change was brought about to align with concerns from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over the escalating numbers of diagnosed cases of oropharyngeal cancer linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV).
While HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer has risen by 225% over the past two decades, oral cancer linked to the historical etiologic pathways of tobacco and alcohol use has declined by 50%. The ADA’s policy also aligns with support for the HPV vaccine, as 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States are related to HPV, according to the CDC.
Dentists and dental hygienists play a critical role in opportunistic screening on all adult patients despite whether they possess the historical risk factors of using tobacco products or alcohol. There is a distinct knowledge gap in today’s population to fully understand that a non-smoker and non-drinker may in fact be at risk for oral and oropharyngeal cancer due to HPV.
It is our responsibility to educate our dental patients about all of the risk factors that exist for both oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Now more than ever, it is critically important to extend our screening practices, both visual and tactile, to every adult in the practice on an annual basis.
Only about a third of adults in the United States report being screened for oral cancer, representing a strong disconnect in our ability to improve earlier discovery rates and improve treatment outcomes.
As dental professionals, it is critical that we elevate our understanding of the escalating profile of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer. Researchers once predicted that cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer would surpass the leading HPV-related cervical cancer by 2020. Yet recent data from national registries has now confirmed that HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer became the leading HPV-associated cancer in 2015.
How common is HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer? About 53,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral and oropharyngeal cancer this year. Close to 20,000 of those cases will occur in the oropharyngeal area, with 70% related to HPV.
The CDC also reports that HPV is so common that almost all sexually active adults will have an infection in their lifetimes, with most of the population clearing the infection with no repercussions. In contrast, a persistent infection with a high-risk strain such as HPV-16 can transform into oral or oropharyngeal cancer.
This transformation may take anywhere between 15 and 30 years. It seems to be targeting a much younger profile of white, non-smoking males age 35 to 55 with a four-to-one incidence of gender predisposition of males over females.
HPV has an affinity for lymphoid tissues and occurs most commonly in the tonsillar areas and the base of the tongue, with a smaller percentage occurring anteriorly in the oral cavity. Due to limited visual acuity, it is important to know and recognize the subtle symptoms that may accompany a posteriorly positioned tumor of HPV origin.
The following symptoms may be among the first distinguishable signs of the presence of oropharyngeal cancer:
- Bleeding in the mouth or throat
- Hoarseness or a change in the voice
- A lump in the throat or the feeling that something is stuck in the throat
- Continual lymphadenopathy or persistent neck masses despite antibiotic therapy
- Slurred speech or difficulty articulating certain sounds
- A tongue that tracks to one side when stuck out
- Asymmetry in the tonsillar area
- A persistent or recurring throat infection that doesn’t fully resolve with antibiotics
- Unilateral earache
- A persistent cough
Oral cancer can be very subtle, so it is extremely important to use magnification such as loupes and a dedicated light source or headlight to be able to discern early visible changes. The paradox that exists is that abnormal cellular differentiation typically starts at the basement membrane. By the time it becomes visible, it has progressed to a later stage of development.
Tactile palpation is paramount in uncovering any areas of hardness or induration possibly suggesting a mass or a tumor that is not yet clinically visible.
Enhanced oral cancer screening with a device such as the VELscope Vx from Apteryx Imaging may reveal what is not visible to the naked eye. It employs direct fluorescence visualization, which has been used successfully in the cervix, lungs, and colon. Using a proprietary wavelength, it gives clinicians the opportunity to visually penetrate the tissue surface to reveal the basement membrane.
The VELscope Vx is an assessment tool, however, and it does not convey a diagnosis. The golden rule always applies. Any oral abnormality that exists beyond 14 days is suspect and requires referral for further evaluation.
The Oral Cancer Foundation offers comprehensive information to help healthcare professionals and the general public to learn more about HPV’s connection with oral and oropharyngeal cancer. In April of 2019, the group launched the “Check Your Mouth” campaign to educate the public about the importance of self-examination of the oral cavity between dental appointments.
The impetus behind this project was to improve earlier discovery rates by having the public self-refer should they find anything new or abnormal that persists beyond 14 days. Cards may be ordered free of charge from the Oral Cancer Foundation store for distribution to dental patients.
Lastly, sharing information regarding the HPV vaccine is one of the strongest prevention methods we have today to make positive inroads in minimizing this type of cancer. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the HPV vaccine for both boys and girls and expanded the use of Gardasil 9 to include individuals age 27 through 45.
Together, we can have an impact on the earlier discovery of oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
Disclosure: Jo-Anne Jones is a KOL and consultant with Apteryx Imaging.
Ms. Jones is the president of RDH Connection, an educational and clinical training company dedicated to quality education and team training. In the midst of preparing to present her extensive research on HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer to her national association, a loved one was diagnosed with late stage HPV-positive tonsillar cancer and lost her life 16 months later. Jo-Anne proudly partners with the Oral Cancer Foundation in conveying the urgent need for changing the way in which we screen for oral cancer to meet the needs of today’s population. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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