Dr. Sansom’s new device can detect oral cancer in its early stages. (Photo: Vane)
By Katie Vane
There’s a new technology at the office of Mammoth dentist Dr. Byron Sansom that could very well be a life saver. It’s called the Sapphire Plus Lesion Detection Oral Cancer Screening System, and it’s changing the way dentists such as Dr. Sansom screen patients for early signs of oral cancer.
Every year, 30,000 Americans die of oral cancer. That’s equal to the number that die of prostate cancer, and three times the number of Americans that die of cervical cancer. Yet until recently, there has been little awareness of the relative incidence of oral cancer. And until recently, no early screening system comparable to those used to detect prostate and cervical cancers has existed for oral cancer.
Traditionally, dentists used white light examinations to check for surface signs of cancer on the lips and inside the mouth. But by the time oral cancer presents surface signs it’s usually in its late stages, and has already spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes. The five-year survival rate for oral cancer detected in this late stage is barely 20 percent.
Now, with the help of the Sapphire Plus Lesion Detection System, dentists have a chance at catching oral cancer in the early stages, raising the patient survival rate to more than 80 percent.
The Sapphire Plus Lesion Detection System is the only device cleared by the FDA for its ability to help detect lesions that may not be visible under traditional white light exams, including precancerous and cancerous growths, and its ability to help surgeons ensure that all diseased tissue is successfully removed when excising cancerous lesions. The Sapphire uses harmless blue light to fluoresce oral tissue, showing details below the basement membrane, deep in the connective tissue. Any change in the cellular structure of the tissue due to inflammation or pre-cancer interferes with the light, shows up as a dark spot in the Sapphire scope.
Dr. Sansom has seen firsthand the consequences of late detection of oral cancer before the existence of technology like the Sapphire. A practicing dentist for 31 years, he’s found four cases of oral cancer using traditional white light. Three of those patients later died. “The key,” Dr. Sansom says, “is early detection.” Now that the technology exists,” he adds, “I’d feel terrible if someone died because I didn’t see something.” So he’s started using the Sapphire after every regular check-up, at no extra cost to the patient.
And it’s not just smokers and drinkers at risk these days. Many recent victims of oral cancer are contracting the disease not due to tobacco and/or alcohol use, but due to HPV (Human Papillomavirus). Over recent years there’s been a 5 percent rise per year in HPV-related oral and throat cancer. Many of these patients are young non-smokers. “Young people don’t realize,” Dr. Sansom says; “they think cancer is for old people.”
Fortunately, dentists like Dr. Sansom are ready and willing to start regularly screening patients both young and old for early signs of oral cancer. “Now that we have this technology,” Dr. Sansom says, “your dentist really could save your life.”