Of the 36,000 people who will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, slightly more than half will be alive in five years.
Now, a simple, painless test at the dentist office could save your life.
If precancerous lesions can be spotted early, they can be removed and potentially prevent the cancer. Survival rates for oral cancers are so low because often it's not detected until it's too late. Now a simple brush test could be a lifesaver.
"One of the biggest problems with adenocarcinoma today is when we find it and diagnose it, the median survival is less than a year," said Dr. David Godin, otolaryngologist at Beth Israel Hospital.
Head-and-neck surgeon Godin says the key is to find it early before a pre-cancerous cell turns into a carcinoma.
"This lining we're talking about is the thickness of a piece of paper," said Mark Rutenberg, co-founder and CEO of OralCDx Laboratories.
Rutenberg used the same technology he created in the military to determine nuclear warheads from decoys to create OralCDX. It's used to detect abnormal cells among normal cells. It's a brush test that sweeps across the inside of the mouth.
"We check the mouth, tongue, vestibular area, for white spots and red spots," said Dr. Samuel Horowitz, a dentist.
Traditionally, cancerous cells were found after lesions or other symptoms appear. Then doctors performed a biopsy, which could miss cancerous cells.
There's no anesthesia and it takes just a few minutes.
The brush biopsy is sent to a laboratory where 200 of the most suspicious cells are analyzed by specially trained pathologists. A cancerous cell has six to eight genetic mutations. A precancerous cell has four.
"If you can find those cells and remove them, you can prevent cancer before it starts," said Rutenberg.
This brush test could be key to stopping a killer.
Although there is no one cause of oral cancer, a rise in this disease in women is believed to be due to a rise in HPV, human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that can be transmitted through oral sex and is known to cause oral cancers.
Also, more young men are using smokeless chewing tobacco, which also contributes to this disease. Rutenberg says of the half-million tests done at his lab, the typical patient with precancerous cells is a 40-year-old non-smoker.