By Alexander Germanis
Most people think of their dentist to take care of their teeth. But, did you know that a routine dental check-up just may save your life?
The word “cancer” usually evokes thoughts of the breast, lung, liver, or pancreatic variety, but few people probably stop to think of the possibility of having oral cancer. In actuality, oral cancer is a broader term encompassing a variety of cancers — those of the lips, the floor of the mouth, the hard and soft palates, the sinuses, the tongue and the pharynx, or throat.
Screening for oral cancer is easy and should be included as part of your regular dental check-up. Tasked with screening all the patients at McLean County Dental for signs of oral cancer, the dental hygienists, Jill, Christie, and Kelly, have seen what oral cancer can do and are insistent that everybody gets checked.
“The screening should take five minutes or less,” says Jill. “It doesn’t take a dentist or hygienist long to do it. What we do is pull up and down on the lip, pull the tongue out and look on both sides. We look at the back of the throat as much as we can. We check in the cheeks and under the tongue.”
“There’s also the back of the neck,” Kelly adds. “And under the roof of the mouth, though it can be very ticklish on most people.”
Although it may be easy to feel like a prized farmed animal during the screening, the hygienists point out how vital it is for everyone to get some form of screening done. The alternative is far, far worse.
Most of the time, if you do end up having oral cancer and the surgery associated with it, there is an extremely high likelihood of disfigurement. Some of the jaw or the tongue can end up being removed in order to excise all the cancerous cells from the body.
Even the more fortunate cases that do not require surgery still need to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Those options, of course, have their own drawbacks. “When you have chemo and radiation, it makes everything taste like metal,” Jill points out. Plus there are the issues with hair loss, extreme nausea, and overall fatigue of the body.
“And there are later effects,” Christie puts in. “Radiation and chemo can and will cause significant decay and dry mouth.”
“So, besides having cancer, you’re miserable from all the things they are doing to you to make you better,” Jill summarizes.
Of course, if nothing is done, oral cancer can and will result in death.
At the precancerous and earliest stages of the cancer there are a few signs to look for: “Sores in the mouth that take longer than two weeks to heal,” Christie says. “Trouble swallowing, a hoarse voice.” If you’re a denture wearer and the dentures don’t seem to fit right anymore, that could be another sign.
The dental hygienists do not want to cause a panic. Concerning the ulcers in the mouth, Jill says nine times out of ten, the ulcer is not going to be cancerous. “Don’t lose sleep over this,” she counsels. “Don’t freak out; it’s probably not. We’re just doing the screening to double check.”
Obviously, it is best to prevent oral cancer from occurring in the first place. The McLean County Dental hygienists suggest certain preventative measures: avoid tobacco in all its forms, especially chewing tobacco; stop or at least cut back on drinking alcohol; reduce sun exposure; and reduce your risks of contracting the human papillomavirus (HPV).
No less important than the do nots is the do. “Come in for your semi-annual dental visits,” emphasizes Kelly.
“Make sure your dentist or your hygienist is actually doing an oral cancer screening,” Jill suggests. “If they’re not doing one, ask them to. Get screened at your dentist today.”
To learn more about the causes of and ways to minimize your risk of getting oral cancer, read next month’s Healthy Cells Magazine.
For more information or to schedule a dental check-up, you may contact Emil Verban Jr., DDS at 309-662-8448 or visit www.mcleancountydental.com. McLean County Dental is located at 2103 E. Washington Street in Bloomington. Dr. Verban provides his patients both general dentistry expertise and the ability to provide specialized services such as sedation dentistry, cosmetic procedures, and dental implants.
Back to Top