During a surprising number of new patient exams I am asked what I’m doing when I look at the back of the throat and under the tongue, and what I’m feeling for when I poke around the neck and jaw. To put it bluntly, I’m looking for anything out of the usual. Such changes may be something as simple as an enlarged tonsil or uvula from a recent illness, or as serious as cancer of the mouth or throat. While most patients just want to get their teeth cleaned and get out the door, this part of the exam, in my opinion, is more important than the health of the gums and teeth. In this short article we’re going to try and educate you on the prevalence, appearance, and diagnosis of cancers that are commonly found in a dental setting.
According to the oral cancer foundation, in the United States alone, over 42,000 people have been diagnosed with oral cancer in 2013 with that number expected to rise in future years. More upsetting is the death rate associated with cancers of the mouth and throat due to late detection. As with any medical condition, the outcome of cancer treatment is heavily dependent on the time from diagnosis to treatment, with delayed treatment often requiring more costly and invasive intervention.
What causes oral cancer is not always attributable to one factor; race, gender, sexual history, family history, age and social habits such as alcohol and tobacco may increase the incidence of oral cancer. Furthermore, the absence of these factors does not mean you are guaranteed to be cancer-free.
The initial appearance of cancers of the mouth and throat are not always apparent to non-healthcare professions, as what seems like an innocuous swelling or discoloration may require further testing. Sores or ulcers that do not heal should be evaluated by a healthcare professional. Other signs to look for are changes in your ability to swallow, speak or any numbness in any part of the head and
neck region that persists for more than three weeks to a month. During a dental screening, your dentist may even use newer technologies such as specific wavelength lights and dyes which can aid in very early detection of changes in the mouth.
A comprehensive examination by your dentist every 6 months includes an oral cancer screening and should not be dismissed any more than a physical examination by your physician. The old adage that you don’t need to see your dentist because nothing hurts may be a risky proposition and I urge all our readers to see a dentist regularly for this important exam. If it has been more than 6 months since your last exam, go to your dentist, or better yet, Kaufman Dentistry, for this important reason.