Boosting oral cancer early detection
Dental Health Services Victoria has partnered with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners to ensure general practitioners across Australia have the tools they need to detect oral cancer early and save lives.
A national online learning resource has been launched on the RACGP website to empower its members to identify individuals at risk of oral cancer, detect the disease earlier through screening and have important prevention conversations with patients.
In Australia, there are more than 4000 new cases of head, neck and lip cancers diagnosed every year and the majority of these are oral cancers. In 2022, there were an estimated 2642 cases of lip and oral cancers – and this figure is expected to rise in the coming years.
Largely due to delayed presentation or diagnosis, oral cancer carries low survival rates, which is why the Victorian Government’s 2016-20 Cancer Plan established the Oral Cancer Screening and Prevention Program to boost prevention and early detection of this disease.
Funded by the Victorian Government, the program is led by DHSV in partnership with the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University, the Australian Dental Association (Victorian Branch) and the Victorian Department of Health.
DHSV launched the Oral Cancer Learning Hub in 2021 – a practical and evidence-based resource that supports oral health professionals to recognise and refer suspected oral cancers in early stages for faster investigation, diagnosis and treatment.
“Because GPs are often the first stop for Victorians seeking medical help, phase two of the program supports GPs to detect oral cancer early and empower patients to make healthy choices,” said DHSV CEO Susan McKee.
“With this program we’re taking early detection and prevention to Victorians where they are.”
This GP training includes information about oral cancer risk factors and prevention, a visual guide of suspicious lesions, a screening tutorial, clinical case studies, and referral pathways.
It also provides advice for GPs on how to have conversations with patients about the common risk factors for oral cancer and the importance of reporting any unexplained changes or symptoms in the mouth.
Content was developed in consultation with experts at DHSV, RACGP, University of Melbourne, Cancer Council Victoria, the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre and the Victorian Department of Health.
This resource is now available to all GPs registered with RACGP in Australia and relevant CPD hours can be claimed after completion.
More information about the Victorian Oral Cancer Screening and Prevention Program is available at www.dhsv.org.au/oral-health-programs/oral-cancer-screening-and-prevention.
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One patient's plea on oral cancer
Gretchen Fox's unexpected health journey began with a simple tongue ulcer.
Dismissed by a pharmacist, a dentist and two GPs, her determination led her to an oral surgeon who diagnosed her with mouth (oral) cancer.
"It took the specialist only minutes to spot what others had missed for weeks," Gretchen says.
"I have learned that the mouth is not an area most GPs focus on in terms of general health. I’ve realised many GPs don’t prioritise oral health as they should. There's a gap," she said. Gretchen's treatment involved a 12-hour surgery followed by two weeks in the ICU.
"It was incredibly tough and traumatic," she recounts.
"I knew very little about recovery post the surgery and, to be honest, was caught off guard by the pain and duration of recovery. Because I was diagnosed relatively early, I was incredibly fortunate that the cancer had not spread, and radiation was not required. For many patients, the radiation is debilitating and traumatic."
Gretchen is now a vocal advocate for improved oral cancer detection, underscoring how early diagnosis saves lives. Her dentist now includes detailed tongue checks in regular visits, a change she credits to her persistent advocacy.