Oral Cancers: Dentists as First Line of Defense
This year almost 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancers. Almost 10,000 will die. Five-year survivorship is only 57%. Many other cancers routinely score higher in survivorship rates.
Yes, the death rate associated with oral cancers are high. The reason is that many times oral cancers are only diagnosed once it has spread to other locations. Typically, the lymph nodes in the neck. Like most cancer early detection is key. One would think that an oral cancer lesion or other symptoms associated with oral cancers would be relatively easy for a patient to detect. But they are not.
We returned to the office of Dr. Richard Nejat of Advanced Periodontics and Implant Dentistry in New York City. We asked him to share his insights about the importance of early detection and reporting of oral cancer symptoms:
“Let’s be clear. Oral cancers are dangerous. Primarily because in the early stages it is often not noticed by the patient. Oral cancer can proliferate with without pain or symptoms. And sometimes, when symptoms finally are significant enough to get a patient’s attention, the cancer has already spread to secondary locations – making treatment all the more difficult and significantly lowering chances of survival.”
“The additional challenge is that patients with oral or oropharyngeal cancer may misinterpret symptoms. The cause of a symptom may be another medical condition that is not cancer – a cold sore, for example.
“So it is often the dentist who is the first person to find oral or oropharyngeal cancer during a routine examination.”
For the record, here is a list of symptoms typically associated with oral and Oropharyngeal cancers:
- Sore in the mouth or on the lip that does not heal; this is the most common symptom
- Red or white patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
- Lump on the lip, mouth, neck, or throat or a feeling of thickening in the cheek
- Persistent sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Hoarseness or change in voice
- Numbness of the mouth or tongue
- Pain or bleeding in the mouth
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaws or tongue
- Ear and/or jaw pain
- Chronic bad breath
- Changes in speech
- Loosening of teeth or toothache
- Dentures that no longer fit
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite, especially when prolonged; this may happen during the later stages of the disease.
And how do you reduce the risk of oral cancers? “It’s simple. The same prescriptions to reduce cancers in general. Don’t smoke, moderate alcohol consumption, healthy diet, and lifestyle – that means more fruits and vegetable, and moderate exercise. And even safe sex can play a role, especially against HPV infections that can cause throat cancers.
Dr. Nejat continued, becoming passionate about the importance of routine dental checkups: “This is another reason to have regular dental checkups. Dentists are trained to look for symptoms for oral cancers that a patient may miss or think are inconsequential. Remember, we are health professionals. And sometimes symptoms we detect may be related to other health issues – other cancers, diabetes, heart conditions.
“Dentists see their patients – if they keep to a regular schedule – more often than a primary physician will, especially if the patient only visits their doctor for an annual checkup. In younger people, the dentist might be the only healthcare provider they see.
“The bottom line is this. Visit your dentist on a regular basis, not only for regular checkups and cleaning, but for cancer screenings. And if your dentist is not doing a careful oral cancer checkup, or dismisses it, find another dentist.”