Dentists: On the Front Line of Defense Against Oral Cancer

When it comes to oral cancer, the role that dentists and dental hygienists play in early detection is absolutely paramount. If you’ve been following the work of Joan’s Foundation, you’ve probably heard us say once or twice that dentists are on the front line of defense against this life-threatening disease. This is a fact that we cannot stress enough. But why is that? And why is it so important to raise public awareness about oral cancer?

Our greatest obstacle in combating oral cancer is early detection. 66% of the time, oral cancers will be found as late as stage three and four. At these stages, oral cancer is much harder to successfully treat and the risk of permanent oral, facial and vocal disfiguration is much higher. By performing routine oral cancer screenings, dentists and hygienists have the ability to detect oral cancers in their early stages, when it is easier to treat and the chances of survival and recovery are much higher.

Accord to a CDC report, each year approximately 60% of American adults sees a dentist. We’re talking tens of thousands of visits to a dentist or hygienist every year, and each one of these visits is an opportunity to catch oral cancer in its early stages. We regularly submit to all sorts of routine examinations for this same reason. Pap smears, mammograms, colonoscopies and prostate exams are all widely encouraged in order to catch potential threats of cancer in their earliest stages. Oral cancer screening is no different!image

Unfortunately, many dentists and hygienists leave dental school feeling underprepared and uncomfortable with performing oral cancer screenings, meaning that more often than not, they are not being performed. But with proper education and training, dental professionals have the ability to make early detection the norm instead of the exception.

This is why Joan’s Foundation’s started its Dental Community Partnership, which works to educate the dental community on the best practices in oral cancer screening and diagnosis. We offer regular seminars with some of the leading doctors and dental professionals in the country so dentists and hygienists can better inform themselves on the most effective ways to detect and diagnose oral cancers. We also provide the members of our Dental Community Partnership with the ability to communicate directly with head and neck surgeons at the OSU James Comprehensive Cancer Center–one of the best cancer facilities in the nation. Our system allows Dental Community members to send photographs of suspicious sores or spots for further examination from these cancer expert and receive feedback within 48 hours.

What exactly is an oral cancer screening?

Don’t let the term intimidate you. An oral cancer screening is a quick and completely painless process, typically lasting no more than five minutes. Most often, your dentist or hygienists will perform an oral cancer screenings while you sit back in the dentist’s chair, examining all areas of the mouth and lips for suspicious sores or lesions.

However, it is not enough just to educate the dental community about oral cancer, it is equally important to educate YOU—the public. You could almost say that dental professionals are the second line of defense against oral cancer, right behind you! After all, your dentist only gets to peek into your mouth twice a year, while you see it every day!

Know the symptoms!

The most common symptoms of oral, head and neck cancer include:
-a sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal
-constant pain in your mouth
-lumps or patches in your mouth, throat or neck
-pain around your teeth
-changes in your voice

Educating the public about the symptoms and warning signs of oral cancer is the first step in early detection. It is important for everyone to understand that above all, YOU must be aware of the changes in your mouth. Now, bear in mind, the human mouth is regularly subject to sores and lesions for a variety of perfectly normal reasons. Sores that may look suspicious could be completely benign (and vice versa). So, as a general rule, if a sore, lump or lesion does not disappear within two weeks, with or without treatment, consult a doctor or dentist as soon as possible.

Our greatest defense against oral cancers lies in raising awareness and improving education in both dental professionals and the public sphere. Help us further this cause by talking to your dentist or hygienist about their oral cancer screening practices and by having a conversation with your friends and family about the risk factors and warning signs of this life-threatening disease.


To learn more about how to reduce your risk of developing oral, head and neck cancer, check our post on the 8 Ways to Prevent Oral, Head and Neck Cancer.

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