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Mouthwash detects head, neck cancer early

December 22, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Many people are diagnosed with head and neck cancers when the disease is already in the late stages. And when the cancer has progressed at that point, it can be extremely difficult to cure. But now, catching the cancer earlier might be as simple as gargling with a new, unique type of mouthwash.Edie Acosta calls her niece and nephew her angels because they gave her the courage to fight cancer.

"They cut from here, all the way down here," said Acosta. On her neck she has a long scar where a Stage IV tumor was removed less than a year ago.

"It seemed bigger and bigger until it got to the size of a fist, a man's fist. And I couldn't even move my neck," said Acosta. "You feel like a little bird whose wings got cut and you can't fly anymore. I just, I thought I was really going to die."

For patients like Acosta, late-stage diagnosis makes treating neck cancer more difficult. Researchers developed a quick, inexpensive mouthwash to detect head and neck cancers earlier.

The patient rinses with the saline mouthwash. After they spit it out, doctors add antibodies that identify molecules involved with cancer. In about 48 hours, if there's cancer detected in the saliva, the molecules show up in color.

"We've found that these molecules show up differently in the oral rinses from patients that have cancer compared to patients that don't have cancer," said Dr. Elizabeth Franzmann, Sylvester Cancer Center.

In a study that included 102 head and neck cancer patients and 69 patients with benign disease, the oral rinse distinguished cancer from benign disease nearly 90 percent of the time.

For Acosta, 30 years of smoking has taken its toll. She hopes this new test helps others catch the cancer before it's too late.

"I think that would be a miracle," said Acosta.

If head and neck cancer is caught early, doctors say they might be able to cure at least 80 percent of cases. They're working on a version of the mouthwash that can be used as an over-the-counter test or administered at health centers.


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