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Better Diagnosis of Oral Cancer
April 16, 2013

By Nancy Volkers
InteliHealth News Service

INTELIHEALTH - Oral cancers are being diagnosed at an earlier, more curable stage a bit more often than they were 20 years ago, says a study. However, there is still progress to be made.

Researchers from the University of Florida, Gainesville, did the study. They looked at health information collected between 1991 and 2008. The information came from Florida's cancer data collection system. The study included 33,963 cases of oral and pharyngeal cancers.

Cancers were put into three groups:

  • Oral cancers - floor of the mouth, tongue, palate
  • Pharyngeal cancers - base of the tongue, tonsils, top part of the throat
  • Other - salivary glands, nasopharynx (part of the throat behind the nose)

Oral cancers decreased in both blacks and whites. During the years of the study, more oral cancers were diagnosed at the earliest, most curable stage. In blacks, 23% were diagnosed at this stage in 1991. By 2008, 32.2% were diagnosed early. In whites, early cancers increased from 45.4% in 1991 to 49% in 2008.

About 76% of pharyngeal cancers were diagnosed in men. Nearly all (94%) were in people ages 45 and older. Pharyngeal cancers decreased in blacks, but increased in whites. The authors say that the increase in whites may be a result of more focus on human papillomavirus (HPV) as a cause of some head and neck cancers.

During the years of the study, early diagnosis of pharyngeal cancers increased in blacks (from 10.7% to 14.0%). It decreased slightly in whites (from 18.1% to 17.7%).

Between 1991 and 2008, cancers of the salivary glands did not increase or decrease for blacks or whites. However, cancers of the nasopharynx decreased in both groups.

Early-stage diagnosis rates of salivary cancers increased in both groups. Early-stage diagnosis of cancers of the nasopharynx decreased.

The authors note that more education about oral and pharyngeal cancers may help to increase the number of cancers diagnosed early. The federal government's Healthy People 2020 program has set a goal of 35.8% early-stage diagnosis for all oral and pharyngeal cancers. This would be a 10% improvement since 2007. The authors note that this is a particular challenge for pharyngeal cancers, because it is more difficult to screen for them.

About 37,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral and pharyngeal cancers every year. About 8,000 die each year.

The study appears in the April issue of the journal Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology.

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