The health system seeks to raise awareness that the illness has been linked to a sexually transmitted disease

Oral cancer rates are going up, even though tobacco use is down.

And new studies link oral cancer to a strain of the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease better known as HPV.

So, dipping chew is out, but oral sex is in. But a new technology now being used on the Peninsula aims to help reduce deaths from the disease.

Early detection is key to treating oral cancer. For that reason, the Riverside Foundation, the charitable arm of the Riverside Health System, on Wednesday donated high-tech detection devices to three health clinics and the Virginia Dental Society's Missions of Mercy.

"There have been high death rates of oral cancer because often you don't find it until it's too late," said Carrie Schmidit, director of Riverside's cancer service line. "When caught early, there's a much better chance of doing something about it."

The device is a called the VELscope (Visually Enhanced Lesion Scope) oral cancer screening system. The devices are produced by a Vancouver, Canada, company and cost a little more than $4,000 apiece, Schmidt said.

The device shines a bluish light into the mouth of a patient. The light reflects back a greenish color if the tissues are normal. Tissues that are damaged will appear black.

If the dentist sees a black spot, that doesn't necessarily indicate oral cancer. It signals the need for a biopsy or for an appointment with an oral surgeon, Schmidt said.

The Oral Cancer Foundation estimated that about 34,000 people in the United States would be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2007, making it the second year in a row that the occurrence rate increased.

Oral cancer will cause more than 8,000 deaths, killing roughly one person an hour.

Of the 34,000 newly diagnosed patients, half will be alive in five years, according to

Riverside donated the devices to local free clinics in hopes of improving access to potentially life-saving detection.

VELscopes were given to the Lackey Free Family Medicine Clinic in York County, Peninsula Regional Dental Clinic in Hampton, Old Towne Medical Center in James City County and the Virginia Dental Association's Mission of Mercy mobile dental clinic.

Historically, oral cancer has affected six men to every one woman, but that gap has narrowed to two men to every woman.

It occurs twice as often in blacks as in whites. Survival statistics are also lower for blacks, at 33 percent, versus 55 percent for whites.

Oral cancer had been closely associated with tobacco use, including chewing tobacco and cigarettes.

But new studies show the HPV-16 strain, which can cause cervical cancer, is also a known cause of oral cancer, particularly cancers at the back of the mouth, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.

Riverside hopes to stir up awareness that oral cancer is linked to HPV.

"There's a societal change that's happening in our young people that has significant ramification for health," Schmidt said. "If we're really about the health of our community, if we're really about not-for-profit health, then this is what we have to do."


Published: May 22, 2008