The Sixth Most Prominent Cause of Cancer in the United States
Rhonda R. Savage, DDS
In 2015, one person died every hour, each day, from oral cancer. This could be you, your spouse, your partner, family member, friend or co-worker.
As women, we routinely elect to have a Pap smear and mammogram each year to look for cervical or breast cancer. But do you look for early signs of head and neck cancer as part of your wellness plan?
Men may have a PSA (Prostate-Specific antigen) test or a colonoscopy to check for abnormalities in the prostate or colon, but do you have an oral cancer screening exam by your dentist?
Sadly, many haven’t been informed about the need for such an examination. Others are aware of the risk, but don’t see the importance because he or she thinks they’re not at risk.
I believe that education is increasingly important for you, because you should be a partner in your well being. The simple truth is that the majority of head and neck cancer is caught at a late stage, when it’s spread to the blood vessels and lymphatic system. Found at an early stage, the chance for survival improves by 80-90%.
Caught at a late stage, you, your family or your friend may experience facial and neck deformity. Issues with daily function like swallowing, tasting and speaking are common. Cost of treatment, anxiety and stress increase at this stage.
What should you look for?
- An ulcer in your mouth, or a sore that doesn’t heal within two weeks
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Feeling like there’s something in your throat
- A swelling or a painful lump in the mouth
- A persistent sore throat or hoarse voice
- An earache that lasts for more than a few days
- Pain on chewing
- Numbness in the mouth or lips
The good news is that there are early diagnostic methods: We use the Identify oral cancer detection light system and do a thorough head and neck exam. We also work with OralDNA: A simple gargle of salt water and a spit can be tested for exposure to the HPV viral strains that are the leading cause of head and neck cancer.
Highly accurate, non-invasive, easy to use chair-side tests now exist to provide information about the presence of head and neck cancer.
Be proactive in your health care. Make sure you receive a thorough screening.
Clinically, it’s called a ‘visual screening with palpation.’ In other words, looking and feeling inside the mouth, visualizing the back of the throat and feeling the neck. Ask if you can hold the hand mirror and watch.
Ask if you can be told what they’re looking and feeling for, plus ask questions. Tell your dentist if you have noticed anything odd when swallowing, peculiar sore throats or coughing/clearing throat. Ask friends and family if they receive the same care at their dental check-up.