April 6, 2016 8:35 am
Updated: April 6, 2016 8:51 pm

New made-in-Canada screening test could detect oral cancer earlier

WATCH: Sean O'Donoghue died from oral cancer at the age of 47 earlier this year. His parents John and Elaine recall the quick progression of their son's illness and say how a new screening procedure could have prevented his death.

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Scientists at the Canadian Cancer Society are developing a new test that’ll detect oral cancer early and determine which wounds are precancerous and could morph into the deadly disease.

Right now, aside from biopsies and invasive surgeries to the mouth and jawbone, there aren’t many tools to screen for oral cancer. Doctors are hoping their test will be a game-changer.

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But the new test comes too late for Sean O’Donoghue. The 47-year-old father of two young kids went to the dentist in June 2015 to complain about pain in his mouth. He had a sore on his tongue that wouldn’t heal for months.

“It started out as a small sore, like I might have bit my tongue and left a swollen bruise,” he told Global News on March 22. O’Donoghue passed away from complications from his cancer on March 24.

He spoke to Global News before his death to raise awareness about oral cancer and the new tool that Canadian researchers hope will catch the mysterious strain of the deadly disease much earlier.

“My life would have been saved,” he told Global News.

Sean O’Donoghue with his two children.

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About 4,400 Canadians were diagnosed with oral cancer last year, according to the society. It’s a cancer that affects the skin inside the mouth, the tongue, cheeks and mouth muscles, Dr. Marco Magalhaes told Global News.

Magalhaes is a clinical scientist at Sunnybrook Hospital and the University of Toronto. He created the test with the help of a $200,000 innovation grant from the society.

While 63 per cent survive five years past their diagnosis, the cancer is often detected too late. Unlike breast cancer or prostate cancer, there is no screening tool for early detection.

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Instead, patients like O’Donoghue end up with aggressive surgery with their tongue and jawbone cut into and removed in some cases. They have to deal with facial disfigurement and long-term challenges with speaking and reading.

During O’Donoghue’s battle with cancer, he needed a 14-hour surgery that removed 90 per cent of his tongue, lymph nodes on the left side of his mouth and tissue. Surgeons created a flap using his stomach muscles leaving significant scarring across his stomach.

“The problem with oral cancer is the treatment is surgery and it’s a surgery that’s really devastating for the patient. Then you add radiation, which is another set of problems,” Magalhaes said.

Comprehensive examinations and biopsies can’t accurately predict which cells are precancerous and have the potential to transform into cancer.

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Doctors can’t develop a treatment plan or remove lesions until they know it’s definitely cancer. The new tests would determine which lesions could transform into cancer and if they’ve already invaded other tissues and aren’t contained.

“It gives the patient a much more precise prognosis so they know exactly what the chances are of this transforming into cancer,” Magalhaes explained.

The test is still in the development stages — Magalhaes and his team worked with cell samples from patients who have already been diagnosed to check for accuracy. Their next steps are to test on new patients.

He’s certain his test is paving the way to a screening tool that’s needed in oral cancer therapy.

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“We’re doing exactly the same thing for the past 50 years in oral cancer diagnosis. There’s really nothing new in the market that can proactively help clinicians,” he said.

Signs and symptoms of oral cancer

When mouth cavity cancer is found and treated early, the chances of successful treatment are better. Get regular health checkups and see your dentist or doctor if you have:

  • White or red patches in the mouth or the lip
  • A sore in the mouth or on the lip that doesn’t heal
  • A lump or thickened area in the mouth or on the lip
  • Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit
  • Bleeding in the mouth

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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