by Oriana Biela-Lieu, Registered Dental Hygienist
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Oral cancer is an issue of particular concern for dentists; Dr. Lieu and our team are always on the lookout for signs and symptoms of this deadly disease when examining patients.
The effects of oral cancer from traditional risk factors – smoking and chewing tobacco – have hit close to home here at Blue Apple Dental Group. Megan is our Office Team Leader. Her uncle was Bob Leslie, a beloved and well-known baseball coach in Sonoma County who started chewing tobacco at the age of 13. By age 27, Bob had developed very aggressive oral cancer. He lost his battle against cancer at the young age of 32. I was in high school at the time, and remember that some of my classmates at Casa Grande High School had Bob as a coach. I also remember seeing many documented photos and pathology slides of oral cancer and its effects during my dental hygiene training at UCSF. You can watch Bob’s sad and impactful story online.
Surprisingly, though, the fastest-growing segment of oral cancer patients is young, healthy non-smoking individuals; this is due to the connection to the HPV virus. In Sonoma County over the past 10-15 years, one in three teens has HPV and does not know it. Young men can carry the virus and pass it on to their female sexual partners. HPV loves to live in warm, moist places such as near the cervix and in the back of the throat. Recently, young women have been getting vaccinated for the HPV virus, but this still does not prevent the spreading of the virus 100%. At this point, there is no way to stop this virus from spreading. Professional involvement and public awareness are the best ways to help reduce the spread of this virus. Learn more in this video in which Dr. Helaine Smith discusses oral sex and oral cancer with Hollywood actor and producer Michael Douglas.
One of the real dangers of this cancer is that in early stages, it can go unnoticed. It can often be painless and physical changes may be very slight. Dentists are often the first line of defense against oral cancer, thanks to early discovery at re-care visits.
Your dentist or doctor can, in most cases, see or feel the tissue changes when the actual cancer is still very small. Its early stages may appear as a white or red patch of tissue or a small ulcer which often looks like a canker sore. If such a lesion does not heal within 14 days it should be looked at by a professional. Cancer symptoms may include pain or difficulty swallowing, speaking or chewing, or swollen masses which can cause numbness in the orofacial area.
People using chewing tobacco are likely to have cancer develop in the soft part of the lip or cheek, or in the soft tissue and gums that cover the lower jaw where the plug of tobacco is held repeatedly. I often see this with young men who are regular uses of “chaw.” I always tell these young men, “Chewing tobacco is the fastest way to give yourself cancer!” Smoking and using alcohol are also dangerous. Alcohol dries out the oral tissue, making it easier for cancer-causing toxins from tobacco to pass into the cells or into the bloodstream. If you need some incentive to inspire quitting your tobacco use, view these images of oral cancer from the Oral Cancer Foundation: http://www.oralcancerfoundation.org/dental/oral-cancer-images.php
At the beginning of every dental hygiene or dental check-up, we look at the soft tissue and conduct an oral cancer exam. If you ask Dr. Lieu, our hygienist Shelli, or me about oral cancer, we would happily explain what we look for and would absolutely tell you if we saw something suspicious. There are times when we decide it is best to refer patients to the oral surgeon to look more closely at a lesion. Sometimes people are scared to do this, but having it checked out could possibly save their life or it could put one’s mind at ease if it turns out not to be cause for concern. I always think it is better to know rather than to live in constant worry.