In light of new data connecting oral cancer to the human papillomavirus (HPV) and to commemorate National Oral Cancer Awareness Week April 7-13, Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana is calling for patients to request an oral cancer exam during their regular dental check-up.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 34,000 people will be affected by oral cancer in the United States this year and roughly 8,000 will die. This translates to one death every hour of every day.

There are new reasons to be concerned about oral cancer. In the past, oral cancer predominately struck men, adults over 40, African Americans, smokers and heavy alcohol drinkers. A 2007 study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and published by the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that HPV is strongly associated with oral cancer among people without traditional risk factors of tobacco and alcohol abuse.

Additionally, according to a U.S. News and World Report article, a February 2008 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology announced that during 1973 and 2004, there had been a near doubling of the incidence of HPV-related oral cancers among people in their 40s.

"Due to oral cancer's association with the HPV virus and the fact that we are seeing more cases of oral cancer in women and younger people who do not smoke or drink, it's crucial for patients to ask their dentist for an oral cancer exam during regular check-ups," said Dr. Jed Jacobson, senior vice president and chief science officer at Delta Dental. "We also call on dentists to tell their patients they are performing an oral cancer exam, and if a suspicious spot is found, to adopt the use of the OralCDx BrushTest™ - an adjunctive diagnostic tool that identifies precancerous cells or oral cancer in its earliest stages. For those who know they carry the HPV virus, it is imperative that they share this information with their dentist upfront."

Signs and symptoms of oral cancer include:

- Non-healing red or white spots that appear on the gums, cheeks or under the tongue
- Swelling of the tongue or throat
- A lump in the mouth or neck
- Painful or difficulty swallowing or chewing
- Numbness in the mouth region
- Vocal hoarseness that lasts for an extended time
- Tiny marks that resemble canker sores that last longer than two weeks
- Sores that bleed and don't heal (in later stages)

Oral cancer exams are quick, painless and involve an evaluation of the neck, head, mouth, gums, throat and tongue. By using a piece of gauze to move the tongue from side-to-side, the dentist can examine the tongue and floor of the mouth. If an unexplained red or white spot is found, the BrushTest™ can be used to painlessly collect cell samples. Delta Dental is one of the first dental benefits providers in the United States to add coverage of the brush test to its core group of covered services.

Like many cancers, the key to surviving oral cancer is early detection. The death rate associated with oral cancer is particularly high, not because it is hard to discover or diagnose, but because the cancer is routinely discovered late in its development. Detecting oral cancer in its early stages is imperative and can dramatically increase the five-year survival rate from approximately 57 percent to 81 percent.

In addition to saving lives, early detection has the potential to significantly reduce medical treatment costs. Oral cancer is one of the most expensive forms to treat, with an advanced case costing upward of $200,000. Patients with oral cancer treated in its early stages face less chances of post-treatment disfigurement. Fifty-two percent of oral cancer victims do not return to work due to disability. When detected early, treatment tends to be more conservative, producing fewer complications and permanent disfigurements.

"If someone notices any of the signs or symptoms associated with oral cancer, they should see a dentist immediately," said Jacobson. "We want the public to be as familiar with the dangers of oral cancer as they are with breast, colon or cervical cancer. We call on dentists to know who is at risk and know what to look for. It's vitally important that both dentists and patients alike help raise awareness of this deadly, yet preventable disease."

For more information about Delta Dental and benefits of the BrushTest™, visit

The affiliated companies of Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, along with Delta Dental of Tennessee, are collectively one of the largest dental plan administrators in the nation. In 2007, the enterprise paid out nearly $1.8 billion for dental care for more than 6.2 million enrollees. Offices are located in Okemos and Farmington Hills, Mich.; Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio; Indianapolis and Greenwood, Ind; and, Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis, Tenn.

Delta Dental