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While it may not be a part of our everyday dental concerns, the Oral Cancer Foundation reminds us that approximately 48,250 people in the US will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer this year, with one person dying from the disease every hour of every day. Tobacco and alcohol use remain major risk factors for oral cancer, but they’re not the only ones. The fastest growing segment of oral cancer patients are young, healthy, nonsmoking adults under 40 years of age whose connection to the disease is the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is actually the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. These are sobering statistics and worth remembering as we commemorate Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month this April.
Dentists, particularly oral and maxillofacial surgeons, play a pivotal role in recognizing, diagnosing and treating oral cancer. We should educate our patients about the importance of performing a monthly, oral self-examination. Patients should be told what to look for while examining their gums, cheeks and tongue for suspicious sores or lesions. The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons has produced two important public service announcement videos; the first discusses the potential link to HPV, and the second demonstrates the proper way to perform an oral self-examination. Both videos appear on the MyOMS.org website and should be seen by every patient, particularly those at risk for oral cancer and HPV.
Always ask your patients about any lifestyle choices that could place them at risk for the disease. As dental professionals, we should take advantage of a scheduled appointment to examine patients for signs of oral cancer. For any patients showing early signs or symptoms, a referral to an oral and maxillofacial surgeon should be made immediately. If needed, the surgeon may perform a biopsy.
As with many cancers, oral, head and neck cancer treatment has a much better chance of succeeding if a correct diagnosis is made early. As dental professionals, we are responsible for educating, examining and participating in the care of those who are at risk for oral cancer. April’s Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Month helps to remind us of this role that is so vital to our patients’ health.
~The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons