Oral cancer symptoms can be identified and treated more quickly thanks to efforts by UBC’s Catherine Poh
Lydia Gnoato Chong knows first hand why oral cancer is often referred to as a silent killer.
Nearly 10 years ago, Chong noticed a small sore on her tongue. “It was there for a year,” she recalls. “It would get better, then it would bother me longer and longer as time went by.
Finally Chong’s boss urged her to see an oral surgeon and a biopsy revealed the lesion was an early cancer.
Like most cancers, early detection and intervention saves lives, but lesions can be difficult to detect, even for health care professionals, and warning signs of oral cancer are often caught far too late.
To address this, Dr. Catherine Poh, an associate professor in UBC’s Faculty of Dentistry and clinician scientist at BC Cancer Agency Research Centre, has developed a screening protocol using a simple hand-held blue light device that can detect malignant lesions.
The device, which uses a technology called Florescence Visualization, makes healthy tissues appear florescent while potentially malignant lesions appear dark, helping dentists catch lesions routine check-ups miss.
No more ‘wait and see’
The tool is an important new way for professionals to spot possible cancers and it can also provide immediate information for worried patients.
“It will give doctors a better indication which patients require immediate treatment while giving peace of mind to low-risk patients,” says Poh.
Chong, who doesn’t drink or smoke and has no family history of oral cancer, said the time waiting for biopsy results was nearly unbearable.
“You know the worst-case scenario so every minute adds to the anxiety,” she says.
In addition to creating stress in patients, the current “wait and see” approach, which involves having all patients with lesions return for checkups every six months, can miss the 15 per cent of patients whose lesions progress to cancer in three years.
“Patients are told they may be living with cancer but can’t do anything about it,” says Poh, who is leading a Genome BC-funded project to develop a new test targeting a set of genes associated with high-risk cancer progression.
Blue spotlight on surgery
For those requiring surgery, blue light technology could give surgeons a better look at the extent of the lesion for removal. Poh is also one of the lead investigators of a national clinical trial funded by the Terry Fox Research Institute to assess the effectiveness of integrating it into oral cancer surgery.
Chong, who has been cancer-free since her surgery where Poh used blue light to assist with malignant tissue removal, says the experience has made her more vigilant with her clients.
“I’m a dental assistant and I should know better,” says Chong. “But I kept putting off getting it checked. It’s just stress, I thought.
“Time isn’t on your side when it comes to oral cancer.”