San Francisco, CA¬ – This year alone, more than 45,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer. Of those, approximately 8,600 will die from the disease, and only 57 percent will survive beyond five years of their diagnosis. The mortality rate of oral cancer is higher than many other cancers for one reason – it’s often caught in its later stages, when it is much more difficult to treat.
“One of the most troubling issues with oral cancers is that in their early stages, they often aren’t noticed because there are no really visible signs and no pain,” says San Francisco dentist Dr. Greg Larson. “However, maintaining regular check-ups with your dentist and scheduling appointments when anything in your mouth seems amiss puts you at a much greater chance of detecting anything abnormal early, when treatment can be most effective.”
And in recent years, the number of patients diagnosed with oral cancer has risen. Researchers have discovered a link between oral cancer and human papilloma virus, which is the same virus linked to cervical and penile cancers. This is alarming because oral cancer caused by HPV is much harder to detect than tobacco-related cancers because many current detection devices cannot identify HPV related oral cancers.
HPV is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancer, and white, non-smoking males agers 35-55 are most at risk. However, women are also at risk, and HPV is thought to be responsible for an alarming increase in oral cancers in non-smokers aged 25 to 50.
“This is why having excellently trained dental assistants is so important,” says Dr. Larson. “My assistants play a key role in detecting signs of oral cancer. First of all, they have the most contact with our patients and are most familiar with our patients’ medical histories, and the health of their mouths. They get to know our patients, and know if they have any lifestyle choices that may make them at greater risk for developing the disease. Only one month ago, we discovered a lump on a patient’s neck that we referred for biopsy and it turned out to be throat cancer that had spread to cervical lymph nodes. The patient was then treated with surgery and radiation and has a good prognosis for survival.”
Historically, oral cancer has been diagnosed through a physical examination, after a patient has found something that has caused them concern. The dentist would then inspect the area and send you on for a biopsy or additional testing to determine what the problem was.
But your dental team should play a key role in ensuring the health of your mouth, and an oral cancer screening should be included in every check-up. That means every dental assistant should be well-trained in being able to spot abnormalities, especially because in their early stages, many oral cancer symptoms are subtle and can be mistaken for a standard mouth problem.
If you experience any of the following, it’s important to mention it to your dental assistant:
• Any irritation in your mouth that lasts longer than two weeks
• Red or white patches that will not go away
• Numbness, pain or tenderness
• Lumps, rough spots, or crust
• Problems swallowing, chewing or speaking
• Difficulty moving your tongue or jaw
• A change in the way your teeth fit together
If you notice any of these signs, you should schedule an appointment with you dentist right away, and be sure to mention your concern at your appointment.
The American Dental Assistants Association is encouraging all dental assistants to continue their study and to become well-trained in detecting abnormalities that may be oral cancers in their patients. These assistants work most closely with patients, and have the ability to pick up on lifestyle choices that may increase cancer risks, as well as notice small changes in their patient’s mouths that can be cause for concern. They can then discuss any concerns with the dentist, who will complete an examination and cancer screening to determine if there is any cause of concern.
Working together, your entire dental team can be your first line of defense against oral cancer, and ensure you have a healthy mouth, and a healthy life.
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