Don’t Ask, Demand an Oral Cancer Exam

healthy teeth

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, roughly 43,200 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer in 2014, and it will kill over 8,000 persons already diagnosed. If you do the math, that means at least one person per hour will die from oral cancer. This is one of the only cancers where the survival rates have not significantly improved in 30 years.

Early detection is critical for this disease, as studies link survival rate to stage at diagnosis. Oral cancer is often caught at a later stage and consequently has one of the lowest survival rates.

Oral cancer is about twice as common in men as in women. According to research, 75% of oral cancer cases are linked to alcohol and tobacco use, making lifestyle choices chief among essential preventive measures. Oral cancer caused by HPV transmitted via oral sex is on the rise, which puts those who may be considered young and healthy at risk. Awareness of these primary risk factors coupled with a healthy lifestyle (nutrition, exercise, safe sex) is the best way for you to take part in preventing oral cancer.

Routine oral cancer screenings are an important part of early detection, which we know is directly linked to survival rate, and should be part of your biannual dental visits. A thorough assessment involves examining inside the mouth, down the throat, inside the cheeks, under the tongue, and palpating the neck area for any possible swollen lymph nodes. Ideally, make sure the trained clinician is using the latest diagnostic technology, which involves the use of light to identify dysplastic changes in the mouth (the abnormal development of tissues, organs, or cells) early in development. The VELscope is an example of such tool and can highlight abnormalities inside of the mouth in as little as two minutes.

Don’t ask, demand an oral cancer examination every time you visit the dentist! Surveys tell us only 15% of U.S. adults report ever having an oral cancer examination, and it’s up to you to bring this statistic closer to 100%.