A routine oral exam at your dentist’s office can make the difference in detecting early warning signs of cancer, yet many people don’t know this simple, painless, twenty-minute check up should be done once every year.
Approximately 30,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, oral cancer occurs almost as frequently as leukemia and claims almost as many lives as melanoma cancer.
“It’s amazing how few people realize the importance of this exam,” said Allison White of North Country Dental in Gorham, New Hampshire. “We’ve saved several people’s lives by doing dental oral cancer examinations.” Many people don’t even know the exam is taking place while the dentist or hygienist is doing it. “They don’t understand what we’re really doing. They just think we’re checking their teeth for cavities and such. So if they don’t think they have cavities or some kind of actual problem or if they have dentures or caps, they tend to not schedule that once-a-year check up. And that’s what gets them.”
Routine oral cancer exams are not being done in the medical field. “Doctors do general screenings and often the check up is not area-specific unless they observe something obvious, like exterior swelling or lumps. If it’s not visible to the naked eye, they’re not going to notice,” North Country Dental’s Dr. Paul Schoenbeck said. “Doctors assume your going to your dentist for oral cancer screenings. During a dental oral exam, the dentist moves the tongue, checks the glands in the mouth, even checks the patient’s head and neck. A dentist feels for physical anomalies in an area that would be overlooked by a general physician. Cancers can be detected before more obvious external indications arise by changes or abnormalities in the glands of the mouth, under the tongue, or in the tongue itself.”
Routine, careful examination of patients is appropriate and necessary. This can easily be achieved during a regular dental visit. The stage at which an oral cancer is diagnosed is critical to the course of the disease. When detected at its earliest stage, oral cancer is more easily treated and cured. When detected late, the overall five-year survival rate is about 50 percent.
Although North Country Dental is “doing a pretty good job of keeping patients informed”, Dr. Schoenbeck stresses that “not enough is done to spotlight the effectiveness or the importance of a dental oral exam in catching the first signs of cancer. Dental oral exams are a great service. They deserve more attention. The exam takes only twenty minutes and it can save your life.”