Diagnosis for Michael Douglas highlights oral cancer risk

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Diagnosis for Michael Douglas highlights oral cancer risk

Michael Douglas discussed his cancer treatment recently on the David Letterman show. (DTI/Photo CBS)
Fred Michmershuizen, DTA

Fred Michmershuizen, DTA

Tue. 2 November 2010


NEW YORK CITY: After it became known recently that the Academy Award winning actor Michael Douglas has been diagnosed with oral cancer, dental professionals around the world seized on an opportunity to urge members of the public to pay more attention to key risk factors and early warning signs of the disease.

The Academy Award winner was diagnosed with a tumor in his throat, and he now faces an eight-week course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This high-profile case has brought oral cancers into the limelight, and oral health experts are keen to make the public more aware of the key risk factors and early warning signs.

The British Dental Health Foundation is calling for more attention to be paid to mouth cancers. The foundation is advising the public to regularly check their mouths.

Douglas quit smoking in 2006, after a long “half a pack a day” habit. Yet, according to the foundation, the possibility of developing oral cancer remains higher for ex-smokers than non-smokers for 20 years after quitting.

Tobacco is considered to be the main cause of mouth cancer, with three in four cases being linked to smoking, according to the foundation. Drinking in excess is also a known factor, with those who both smoke and drink to excess being up 30 times more likely to be at risk.

“It is crucial the public know about the risk factors and early symptoms as early detection can save lives,” said Dr. Nigel Carter, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation. “Survival rates can increase from just 50 percent to over 90 percent with early detection, yet over two thirds of cases are diagnosed at a late stage.”

Other risk factors include a poor diet. Research has shown that an increased intake of fish, vegetables, fruit and eggs can help lower risks of cancer. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is also linked to the disease, with U.S. studies linking more than 20,000 cancer cases to HPV in the past five years. The virus can be transmitted via oral sex.

“Many people have not heard of mouth cancer and do not realize how common it is,” Carter said. “The latest figures show that men over the age of 40 are twice as likely to develop the condition as women.”

If Douglas’ initial treatment is unsuccessful, follow-up treatment is likely to be either a partial or complete laryngectomy, which can cause voice changes or the loss of voice completely, the foundation said.

Carter added: “This case shows just how devastating and life-changing mouth or oral cancer can be and it really is vital the public know what to do if they spot a problem.”

Early warning signs include: a non-healing mouth ulcer, red or white patches in the mouth and any unusual lumps or swelling. The foundation advises anyone with any of these symptoms to visit their dentist for further examination.

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