Why going to the dentist could save your life

When you think of going to the dentist, you may think it’s just about getting your teeth cleaned and getting an exam. But did you know it could also save your life? Because they have the tools and vantage point to look closely at your mouth, dentists and hygienists are able to screen for and potentially detect oral cancer.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, oral cancer is diagnosed in over 48,000 Americans each year and unfortunately has only a 56% five-year survival rate. This is largely due to late diagnosis after the cancer has spread to another area. Many dentists are trying to change this, though, in the form of oral cancer screenings at every cleaning. While traditionally thought only necessary for older, higher risk patients who use tobacco products and drink alcohol, oral cancer screenings are also important for young, non-smoking adults, a population that represents an increasing segment in oral cancer diagnosis.

At every Willow Creek Dental cleaning, our hygienist and dentist are visually looking for any signs of oral cancer in your mouth, including your lips, tongue and gums, in addition to a manual examination of your lymph nodes. They will question you about anything that looks or feels abnormal and ask how long it has been there, if it is sore and if it has changed. While many areas of soreness, irritation or abnormality may be explained by something as simple such as biting your cheek, some areas can be symptoms of oral cancer.  A general rule, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, is that “any sore, discoloration, induration, prominent tissue, irritation, hoarseness, complaints of difficulty in swallowing, unilateral earaches, which does not resolve within a two week period on its own, with or without treatment, should be considered suspect and worthy of further examination or referral”.

If there is an area of concern found during your appointment, the dentist will most likely recommend getting a second opinion with an oral surgeon or periodontist, who may perform a biopsy of the area after further examination.

So the next time you visit the dentist, ask them about your oral cancer screening. If they say you don’t need one due to your age or other factors, request that they still do one for you. For more information on oral cancer, please visit http://oralcancerfoundation.org/.