Screening for cancer of the head and neck: if not now, when?

Oral Oncol. 1997 Sep;33(5):313-6. doi: 10.1016/s1368-8375(97)00034-1.


There is as yet no evidence to support population screening for oral cancer, although the mouth is easy to examine, and the disease is common in certain parts of the world and/or subsegments of the population. Oral cancer screening programs have been carried out on several hundred thousands of individuals in developing countries (mostly India and Cuba) and several thousands in developed countries (mostly the U.S.A., U.K. and Italy). Especially in developed countries, lesions of the pharynx and larynx were also searched for. Substantial portions of individuals with suspicious lesions (around 10%), mostly leukoplakia, could be identified, but major difficulties were found in targeting highest-risk individuals and referring them to a specialised centre, when necessary. When oral inspection was repeated, relatively high incidence of oral cancer, after removal of prevalent cases, suggested a rather short sojourn time for preclinical cancer (in the order of one year). Oral cancer screening programmes would be greatly facilitated by screening tests able to anticipate the detection of a preclinical phase, compared to visual inspection, thus allowing screening intervals to be prolonged. Finally, even if dysplastic lesions of the oral cavity were better recognised and understood (e.g. as for intra-epithelial lesions of the cervix uteri), surgical control of the disease would be harder than for the uterus, breast, or colon-rectum.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening*
  • Mouth Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Precancerous Conditions / diagnosis
  • Risk Factors