Doctors using mouthwash to detect head, neck cancer



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Posted on December 23, 2009 at 5:55 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 10:45 AM

For a patient with head and neck cancer, the cure rate is only 30 percent. That's because the disease is often detected in the late stages. Now catching the cancer earlier may be as simple as gargling with mouthwash.

Edie Acosta's niece and nephew gave her the courage to fight neck cancer.

"They cut from here, all the way down here," she said.

On her neck, the scar marks where a stage four tumor was removed.

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

For patients like Edie, late stage diagnosis makes treating neck cancer more difficult. Now, researchers have developed a quick, inexpensive mouthwash to detect these cancers earlier.

The patient rinses with the saline mouthwash. After they spit it out, doctors add antibodies. 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, otolaryngologist, Sylvester Cancer Center at the University of Miami.

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

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

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

If head and neck cancer is caught early, doctors say it has and 80 percent cure rate. Researchers are now working on a version of the mouthwash for home use.