New treatment may help prevent oral cancer

They're often detected in a routine dental or doctor's exam, red or white lesions called leukoplakia that can turn into serious, even deadly oral cancers.

"I do happen to know people that have died of this kind of cancer and so we watch it very closely," said Mike Hagerman, oral cancer survivor.

former smoker Mike Hagerman is a two-time oral cancer survivor.

Now, Hagerman's leukoplakia is back. This time, he's part of a study testing a new photodynamic laser treatment designed to eliminate precancerous cells.

"And when the laser fires onto the lesion, it emits light at a very specific frequency that causes free oxygen radicals that destroy the lesion," said Dr. Stuart Wong, Medical Oncologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Tested on the hand or used in the mouth on actual lesions, researchers say the laser doesn't hurt. It's a preventive measure that doctor say could save lives.

"There is some emerging data that the better we can kill off these early precancerous lesions, that that might translate later down the road many, many years to a decreasing in the development of cancers and that's the goal," said Wong.

Oral cancer has a five year survival rate of less than 50 percent. Doctors say early detection can be crucial. Check your mouth regularly. If you see a red or white spot or feel something irregular, get it checked immediately.

"I'm gonna have to be aware of it for the rest of my life," said Hagerman.

Hagerman hopes with good medical care and a little vigilance, he can stay cancer free. Even if you're not a smoker, you can still get oral cancer. Recent research shows the fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population are non-smokers under the age of 50. Risk factors increase over age 40 for both men and women. Overall, men are at higher risk for oral cancer.

More Information
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, this year, oral cancer will cause more than 8,000 deaths, killing roughly one person every hour. This deadly cancer often starts as a discolored area in the mouth called leukoplakia. Leukoplakia is a precancerous lesion that forms on the tongue or inside of the cheek in response to a persistent irritation. Irritation can be caused by dentures, fillings, crowns, smoking or chewing tobacco. The condition normally shows up as a white or red patch in the mouth. When leukoplakia is caused by tobacco use, it is called smoker's keratosis. These patches also sometimes appear on female genitalia, although the cause is unknown. A condition called hairy leukoplakia sometimes affects individuals with weakened immune systems, especially those with HIV or AIDS. This form of leukoplakia shows up as fuzzy, white patches that resemble folds or ridges on the sides of the tongue.

Prevention: Since leukoplakia is most often caused by smoking or chewing tobacco, avoiding these habits drastically reduces your chances of developing the condition -- and the oral cancer that often follows it. Sun exposure and alcohol use also put you at a higher risk for developing oral cancer. Some studies suggest a diet high in fruits and vegetable help prevent leukoplakia.

Catching leukoplakia early is another solid defense against developing oral cancer. See your physician if you notice a red or white spot or sore inside your mouth, on your tongue, on the inside of your cheek or on your lip that persists for more than two weeks. Visit your dentist regularly so he or she can check your mouth for signs of the condition. When leukoplakia progresses to oral cancer, other symptoms occur including the following:

  • Sores that bleed easily or does not heal.
  • A color change 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.

Detection and treatment: If your dentist or doctor suspects you have oral cancer after a physical examination, he or she will probably do a biopsy to determine if cells are cancerous. Other procedures including X-ray and MRI scanning may be necessary for confirmation of the cancer. Treatment usually involves surgery supplemented by radiation treatment. Some patients may need chemotherapy as well.

Experimental treatments of leukoplakia with photodynamic therapy combined with aminolevulinic acid (ALA) are underway. ALA concentrates in cancer cells when taken orally and becomes active when exposed to a certain kind of light. During treatment, the ALA is activated by laser light and kills off abnormal cells, such as those found in leukoplakia. Doctors hope this treatment will be an effective measure against leukoplakia to prevent the onset of oral cancer.

For more information, please contact:
Medical College of Wisconsin
Milwaukee, WI
Toranj Marphetia, Public Relations
(414) 456-4700

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