A missed cancer diagnosis can be devastating. However, unlike other malignancies, oral cancer is more likely to progress unnoticed until life-threatening stages. This is mainly due to misdiagnosis of early-stage signs and symptoms. One case review found that, among 35 patients whose oral cancers were missed, the most common misdiagnoses were:1
- Dental abscess
- Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJD) syndrome
- Facial trauma or fracture
- Non-healing tooth extraction socket
Unfortunately, this pattern is often the norm for patients with oral cancer. In fact, greater than two-thirds of cases are diagnosed in later stages.2 This alarming statistic is a primary driver of the 50% survival rate.3 However, for the other 50%, survival may mean debilitating treatment and reduced quality of life.
Outcomes of a Late-Stage Diagnosis
Treating oral cancer in stages III and IV is challenging for both patients and providers. In order to achieve the best outcomes, providers may choose to use a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgical therapy. These procedures are highly invasive and may include excision of healthy tissues, leading to permanent disfigurement, long-term pain, and trouble carrying out normal functions. Patients undergoing extensive excision and/or dissection must prepare to live without essential structures, such as the lip, tongue, jaw bone, hard palate, and voice box.4
Even if this treatment protocol works, patients must undergo years of extensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy to re-learn how to perform daily activities. They also suffer from the debilitating long-term side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
On top of the physical burden, patients also face a high cost of treatment. Cancer treatment is expensive by nature, and adding reconstructive surgery and dental or facial prostheses to the equation only serves to compound the financial burden. One retrospective claims analysis found that using multiple forms of treatment was twice as expensive as single modality treatment.5 On average, patients with advanced oral cancer needing chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery had over $153,000 in medical bills after commercial health coverage.5
Strengthening Early Detection Initiatives
From disfiguring and life-altering treatment to the tremendous cost of care, surviving a late-stage oral cancer diagnosis can still devastate a patient’s quality of life. While survival is the ultimate goal of treatment, providers should shift their focus to redefining what a “good” outcome looks like — namely, less invasive treatment and lower financial burden.
This requires an industry-wide push for early detection. With proper screening techniques and proactive intervention, patients can not only increase their chances of survival but also maintain a high quality of life after treatment. At Vigilant Biosciences®, we’re helping providers around the world bolster their detection efforts to diagnose oral cancer earlier and improve patient outcomes.
1. Daniel, M. & Rogers, S.N. (2022). Professional delays in referral of patients with mouth cancer: six case histories. British Dental Journal 233(12), 1003-1008.
2. Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Statistics. (October 2022). Cancer.Net. https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/oral-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/statistics
3. González-Moles, M.Á., Aguilar-Ruiz, M., & Ramos-García, P. (2022). Challenges in the Early Diagnosis of Oral Cancer, Evidence Gaps and Strategies for Improvement: A Scoping Review of Systematic Reviews. Cancers 14(19), 4967.
4. Surgery for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. (n.d.). American Cancer Society. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/types/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/treating/surgery.html
5. Jacobson, J.J., Epstein, J.B., Eichmiller, F.C., Gibson, T.B., Carls, G.S., Vogtmann, E., Wang, S., Murphy, B. (2012). The cost burden of oral, oral pharyngeal, and salivary gland cancers in three groups: commercial insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. Head & Neck Oncology 4, 15.