Oral health care involves protecting your dazzling smile, but there’s much more to a healthy mouth than white teeth. In fact, dentists are vanguards in helping to ensure your overall health and wellness as they examine all the tissues of the lips, mouth and palate.
One thing dentists look for are signs of oral cancer. The disease is a risk for everyone, although smokers and people who chew tobacco are much more likely to suffer from this often aggressive form of cancer. The Oral Cancer Foundation states that “more than 34,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year,” and only half of those individuals will survive more than five years.
Dentists routinely screen patients for any overt signs of oral cancer during dental exams, but individuals should be aware of potential signs of trouble. A sore blister in the mouth or on the lip, white or red patches in the mouth or on the lips, and bleeding from the mouth are among the most common symptoms of a potential malignancy, says Dr. Ruth Gomes of Viva Smiles Advanced Dentistry. “Deep pain in the ear is a fairly unknown but often occurring symptom,” she adds.
Patients who notice any of these symptoms that do not heal on their own within two weeks should seek a medical opinion. “Since oral cancer grows below the mucosa, by the time it breaks to the surface it is often very serious,” Gomes explains. “Upon request, I perform Vizilite Plus exams on my patients during their hygiene appointments. This is a special light that illuminates abnormal cells below the tissue, allowing me to diagnose it much earlier, which can save lives.”
In addition to tobacco products, Gomes notes that “a recent study in Australia found that the use of alcohol-based mouthwash increases oral cancer risk. I use alcohol-free mouthwash in my practice to be safe.”
Dr. George Duello, of Periodontics Ltd. notes that the only way to make a definitive cancer diagnosis is through biopsy of the suspicious tissue. “We cannot judge the severity of the disease based on the appearance of the lesion,” he says. “I’ve seen some cases that have looked fairly benign but turned out to be advanced disease and other cases that looked very serious but were actually nothing to be concerned about.”
After taking a sample of tissue or removing the entire lesion for pathologic analysis, the best treatment course is determined based on the location, severity and type of cancer diagnosed. In some cases, a team of specialists work with the patient. Oncologists, oral surgeons, and ear, nose and throat specialists may all be called upon to lend their expertise.
“Early diagnosis and treatment is key to the best possible prognosis,” Duello says. He stresses the importance of seeing a dentist if you develop any mouth or lip sores or irritations that linger or bleed without healing.
“And, of course, we always tell people not to smoke or chew tobacco,” he adds. “And wear sunscreen on your lips. They need protection just like the rest of your exposed skin.”