The Important Oral
By Sheila Wolf, RDH
More than 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with
oral cancer each year. That means that somewhere on the lips,
the gums, the linings of the cheeks, the tongue, the floor
of the mouth (underneath the tongue), the palates, and that
little pad behind the wisdom teeth, there could be something
lurking that threatens your well-being. Oral cancer can be
deadly. However, if diagnosed early enough, oral cancers can
be treated with great success.
Consider your doctor exceptional if, when performing
your yearly physical, he looks at more in your mouth than
just your tonsils and that little dangly thing in the back
of your throat (your uvula). According to The American Cancer
Society, a 1992 national survey revealed that only 15% of
the population reported ever having had an oral examination.
There seems to be an unspoken agreement in the
world of medical professionals, that the mouth is an entirely
separate area of the body, its domain belonging to the dental
specialist. This reliance on the dentist or hygienist assumes
that everyone has dental regular check-ups and that every
dental professional performs an oral cancer exam.
It is not yet universally accepted that the
health of the mouth has an effect on the rest of the body.
However, in his first-ever report on oral health in 2000,
the Surgeon General made this statement: "Oral health
is integral to general health ... Oral health and general
health should not be interpreted as separate entities."
You cannot have a healthy body if your mouth is diseased.
Who is most at risk for oral cancers?
- People over the age of
- People who smoke cigarettes, cigars, and
- People who chew tobacco and dip snuff.
- People who drink alcohol excessively.
- People who are exposed to too much sun (cancer
of the lip).
- People who both drink and smoke have increased
However, don't be smug if you don't fall into
those categories. More than 25% of oral cancers occur in people
who do not smoke and have no other risk factors.
I once had a fourteen-year-old boy in my dental
chair who "dipped" tobacco. He used to chew it first
and then hold it against his lower lip and gums when he played
baseball because, he said, it was "cool." When he
came in to have his teeth cleaned, I noticed a suspicious-looking
white patch between his cheek and gums, which had obviously
developed from the constant irritation of a foreign, nicotine-soaked
substance being placed there on a regular basis during baseball
season. It definitely appeared to be pre-cancerous, and I
told him that if he didn't stop "dipping," he would
probably lose his jawbone if not his very life!
He quit ... And lived. Thank goodness he listened.
Here is a list of things to look for in your
mouth that could save your life:
- A sore or spot on your lip or in your mouth
that bleeds easily or does not heal for 2 weeks or longer.
- A white or red area on your gums, tongue,
or lining of your mouth.
- A lump, thickening, or crusty spot on your
lip, your mouth or your throat.
- A persistent sore throat.
- A change in your voice.
- A pain in your ear.
- An unexplained swelling of your jaw with
difficulty chewing, speaking or swallowing.
- Any unusual bleeding, pain, or a numb feeling
in your mouth area.
- A change in the way your teeth come together.
- Any asymmetry on your lips, mouth, face,
If you have any concerns, always consult your
physician or your dentist for a diagnosis.
If your physician or dentist notices something
that looks unusual, she will probably ask you to come back
in 2 weeks so she can check it again. Most sores heal in that
length of time. If it is still there, she may perform a simple,
painless test, called a brush biopsy that can detect potentially
dangerous cells at an early stage of disease. If your dentist
suspects something risky, a biopsy (removal of a piece of
the tissue with local anesthesia) will be sent to a pathologist
who will examine it under a microscope to check for cancer
cells. Either your general dentist will do this or he/she
will refer you to a specialist.
What can you do to safeguard your health?
Make sure you have regular dental check-ups.
They should include an examination of the entire mouth, which
is vital in the early detection of cancerous and pre-cancerous
conditions. You could have a very small, but dangerous, oral
spot or sore and not be aware of it.
Always ask your doctor, dentist or hygienist
to do an oral cancer exam as part of your routine exam. You
are entitled to it! It should take just a few minutes and
could save your life. Seventy-five percent of all head and
neck cancers begin in the oral cavity.
Do a monthly self-examination. Remove any appliances
you have in your mouth and use a washcloth or gauze to dry
off your tissues. This will enable you to see lumps or bumps
easier as well as any changes in the texture of your tissues.
The National Cancer Institute encourages people to take an
active role in the early detection of oral cancer.
Eat a diet plentiful in fruits and vegetables.
Studies show that good nutrition may prevent the development
of potentially cancerous lesions.
Remember, frequent self-diagnosis in between
dental visits is important.
Here are some organizations that will provide
Article appeared in The Health Plus Letter,
24, 2004, Vol. 2, No. 28. Copyright © 2004 by Larry
Trivieri, Jr. All rights reserved.
Sheila Wolf, RDH, affectionately called Mama Gums, has been a registered dental hygienist since 1971. She is currently retired from clinical practice but enjoys writing, speaking, and consulting on various oral health issues. She has authored two award-winning books, Pregnancy and Oral Health: The critical connection between your mouth and your baby, and Your Mouth Could Be KILLING You. Both are available on her website, http://www.mamagums.com/about_book.html, through Amazon, and at finer bookstores everywhere. Sheila also works with people privately as an oral wellness coach, educating and empowering people to keep their natural teeth for a lifetime, avoid gum surgery, and just possibly add years to their lives. You may reach Sheila through her website, www.mamagums.com or in San Diego at 866-MAMA-GUMs.
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