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January 23, 2008 > The forgotten disease

The forgotten disease

By Vidya Pradhan
Photos By courtesy of Gurjit Randhawa

It kills one person every hour, 24 hours a day in the United States.
It is the 6th most common cancer in the world.
It has the worst five-year survival rate of all major cancers.
Name this disease.

Did you guess AIDS? Or breast cancer? These high profile diseases have caught the attention of doctors and donors but the answer to our puzzle above is - Oral cancer.

Oral cancer, or growth of cancerous tissue in the mouth, is a particularly insidious disease because it manifests visibly at such an advanced stage that all the advances in surgery, radiation and chemotherapy have been virtually powerless against this silent killer. Dr. Gurjit Randhawa of Randhawa Dental and his wife, Dr. Aneet Randhawa, know this from personal experience.

About 15 years ago, Randhawa's grandfather complained of a slight pain in his dentures, which he believed was caused by a poor fit. Concerned about the tissue damage that a visual examination revealed, Randhawa, who was freshly out of dental school at the time, referred him to an oral surgeon. The diagnosis of oral cancer came too late for the old gentleman, who succumbed to the disease in less than eight months.

The news was particularly shocking because Randhawa's grandfather did not smoke, chew tobacco or consume alcohol. Though these are the typical trigger factors for the cancer, UV radiation, poor diet and nutrition and physical irritation due to poorly fitting dentures have also been identified as causes.

The personal tragedy spurred the Randhawas to be on the lookout for technologies for early detection of the cancer, and two years ago, they found the VELscope during a dental seminar.

The VELscope, which could easily be mistaken for a gaming system or a small computer tower, is a hand-held device that provides dentists and hygienists with an easy-to-use examination system for the early detection of abnormal tissue. The patented VELscope technology platform was developed in collaboration with the British Columbia Cancer Agency and MD Anderson Cancer Center, with funding provided in part by the National Institute of Health (NIH).

The VELscope hand piece emits a safe blue light into the oral cavity, which excites the tissue from the surface of the epithelium through to the basement membrane. The unhealthy or cancerous tissue shows up as a sharply contrasting color to the healthy tissue. Typically, healthy tissue appears as a bright apple-green glow while suspicious regions are identified by a loss of fluorescence, which thus appear dark.

The clinician is then able to differentiate between normal and abnormal tissue. The VELscope is the only non-invasive device clinically proven to help discover occult oral disease. The screening is absolutely painless, quick and quite inexpensive. Some dental plans cover the use of the VELscope, otherwise, a typical session costs somewhere in the range of $50 out-of-pocket.

Given his personal interest in early detection of oral cancer, it is not surprising that Randhawa is among the rare dental professionals who have always insisted on a thorough visual screening for oral cancer for all new and existing patients, including palpating the entire jaw line. Today his clinic is one of the few in the area to own a VELscope, an investment of around $6,000.

Since its introduction in the clinic, Randhawa has screened over 200 patients with the VELscope, and has on occasion had to send only about 5-6 patients' tissues for biopsy. He is thankful that he has not had to deliver the bad news of a positive diagnosis to any patient so far. His passion for cancer prevention and community service has led him to offer free screenings using this revolutionary device at his clinic.

Randhawa's commitment to catching this disease in its early stages is easily understandable when you consider that in the past three decades there has been a 60 percent increase in oral cancer in adults under the age of 40. Even though there are certain risk factors for the disease, as outlined above, 25 percent of newly diagnosed cases do not fit the high-risk profile. The good news is that oral cancer is curable with early diagnosis.

To be on the safe side, here are the things you need to do to protect yourself from this formidable foe -

Check for five symptoms every month
- A sore on any oral tissue that bleeds easily and does not heal
- A color change of the oral tissue
- A lump, thickening, rough spot and crust
- A small eroded area
- Pain tenderness or numbness

Also be sure to avoid regular sun exposure, tobacco and alcohol. Visit your dentist for periodic exams and evaluations.

Free screenings with the VELscope are offered at Randhawa Dental every Wednesday morning from 10 a.m. - Noon. Appointments may be scheduled by calling (510) 471-1255.

VELscope Oral Cancer Screenings
10 a.m. - Noon
Randhawa Dental
4138, Dyer St., Suite 1, Union City
(510) 471-1255

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