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By Dr. George Landress
You know there are plenty of good reasons to see the dentist regularly, like catching cavities early and protecting your teeth and health from gum disease — not to mention keeping your smile bright and beautiful. But there’s another very important reason many people aren’t aware of, and that’s the fact that a simple exam dentists perform as part of your checkup is your first and BEST defense against oral cancer.
An All Too Common Condition
Sometimes called mouth, tongue or lip cancer, oral cancer is all too common. Approximately 36,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year alone. (That works out to about 100 new cases every single day.) Sadly, someone dies of oral cancer every hour. Most disturbingly, the rate at which this deadly disease occurs is actually rising. Indeed, 2010 is the fourth year in a row there’s been an increase in occurrence.
Who’s at Risk?
As with many other cancers, the risk of oral cancer is higher for some people than for others. The biggest risk factors include: tobacco and alcohol use — with the greatest risk for those who use both; exposure to human papilloma virus version 16 (the same virus implicated in cervical cancer); too much sun exposure; and family history. It’s important to remember, though, that oral cancer can strike people with none of these factors. In fact, more than 25 percent of oral cancer victims don’t smoke or drink heavily.
Delay Can Be Deadly
When found early, oral cancer is highly treatable with an 80-90 percent survival rate. Unfortunately, though, it’s often not discovered until it’s reached the later stages. As a result, the overall survival rate at five years is just 45 percent. The stage at which oral cancer is discovered makes a major difference in treatment, too. Treatment of cancers found early usually causes little change in a person’s appearance or ability to function. Treatment for later stage cancers, though, can involve considerable disfigurement and make it difficult for patients to chew, swallow or speak clearly.
Little or no Warning
Not only is oral cancer deadly, it’s deceptive as well. Symptoms, which can occur in any part of the mouth, include: tiny red or white spots that are very difficult to see; changes in the head, neck, face or mouth, including color changes, lumps, bumps or rough spots, red, white or speckled patches in the mouth; and unexplained bleeding or numbness. Changes like these are hard to detect — and they’re often harmless — but it’s difficult to tell the difference between what’s harmless and what’s potentially deadly.
Because finding oral cancer early is the key to treating it effectively, experts recommend that people perform a self-exam at least once a month. This includes looking closely at all areas of your mouth and feeling for enlarged lymph nodes on your neck and under your jaw. If you find anything suspicious, call us immediately. In addition, the American Cancer Society recommends that everyone over 20 be screened for oral cancer by a dentist once every three years and that everyone over 40 have this kind of screening every year.
Quick and Painless
At our office, we consider a thorough oral cancer screening a routine part of your exam. We have the equipment to carefully examine your mouth, tongue, neck and jaw — and the skill to tell the difference between a normal condition and the warning signs of oral cancer. It’s totally painless and it takes just minutes — but those few minutes could be a real lifesaver. If you have a friend or loved one who hasn’t seen the dentist recently, please urge them to see a dentist for an exam that includes cancer screening. It could be the most important thing you do today
Sources: ADA.org, myclevelandclinic.org oralcancerfoundation.org
This article was written by Dr. George L. Landress, D.D.S., Master of the Academy of General Dentistry at the Dr. George L. Landress office. For more information, call (203) 743-7608 or visit www.danburysmiles.com.