13:30 PM

Acid Reflux and Oral Cancer

The survival rate for people with oral cancer has not shown much improvement over the past several decades and we should discuss some reasons for that.

In general terms, mouth cancers have about a 50% survival rate after 5 years. Most physicians believe this is because the cancers of the mouth are diagnosed later than other cancers, mainly because the public ignores many early signs.

As a dentist, I am expected to perform a 90-second oral cancer screening for patients. In this screening, I look for color changes in the tissues or small ulcerations in the oral cavity. Many lesions are found at the base of the tongue and under the tongue – places most people never look at in their own mouths.

A dentist needs to take a piece of gauze and pull your tongue, twisting it from side-to-side to get a good look under and behind the tongue. There are other tools available to dentists today for biopsying these ulcerations to tell if they are cancerous. One popular tool uses a rinse and blue light to show ulcerations. This tool does not give a diagnosis of the tissue changes, but it makes them easier to find. For those with insurance, the visual oral cancer screening is included as part of the oral evaluation performed by dentists, and should not be charged separately.

The leading causes of oral cancer include the use of tobacco and alcohol, but certainly it can strike anyone. My mother died nearly 40 years ago from a form of oral cancer related to acid reflux and which is almost completely preventable today. Prior to her death, I was not aware that acid reflux can irritate the esophagus until it becomes malignant. Common associated diagnoses are GERD and Barrett’s esophagus. GERD is a term for acid reflux; Barrett’s esophagus is the pre-cancerous esophagus caused from acid reflux that then becomes irritated and later may become malignant. Your dentist may be able to recognize untreated Barrett’s from signs of erosion on the teeth from the acid and may alert you to have a conversation with your physician.

This month (April) is oral cancer awareness month. I wanted to remind you to make sure your dentist pulls and twists your tongue at your next visit.