We all want our smiles to be bright and healthy, but caring for your mouth goes far beyond daily brushing and flossing. It’s important to remember that the health of your mouth can affect your entire body so, naturally, professional help is needed.
Many men and women are familiar with early detection methods for cancer, but only for a few specific forms. Oral cancer is a type of cancer that many overlook, unaware of the early detection methods available. By simply requesting an oral cancer screening at your regular dental visits, you can significantly increase your chances of surviving oral cancer.
“In the U.S. alone, approximately 34,000 individuals are newly diagnosed with oral cancer each year. This number is increasing due to oral cancer’s link with the human papillomavirus (HPV),” says Hugh Flax, D.D.S., vice president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry and owner of Atlanta Aesthetic and Laser Dentistry. “Oral cancer is estimated to be three times as common as cervical cancer. Sadly, two-thirds of the time, oral cancer is diagnosed in late stages. About 50 percent of those patients will not survive more than 5 years.”
On the bright side, Flax notes that the American Cancer Society estimates that early detection of oral cancer improves 5-year survival rates from 22 percent to almost 90 percent. “Besides running the risk of death, the need for oral cancer treatment can dramatically affect your ability to eat, swallow, kiss or talk, as well as distort your appearance,” Flax says, emphasizing the importance of early detection to avoid health- and appearance-changing effects.
The screening process
According to Flax, every dental practitioner has been taught how to perform visual (sight) and tactile (touch) exams to detect signs of oral cancer in patients. The dentist will study your skin, lips, the interior of your mouth and the underside of your chin and neck during these exams. According to Carol M. Wolff, D.D.S., dental practitioner at Wolff & Greene Dentistry in Atlanta, these traditional screenings are available at most dental offices, and should be done at every dental checkup.
“We now have an added tool of using a vinegar-type rinse with a special light that allows us to pick up cells that may have undergone precancerous changes before we can see them with the naked eye,” Wolff says. “This includes the ViziLite Plus and VELscope tests available in many dental offices.”
These high-tech screenings take only 5 to 10 minutes, and cost anywhere from $35-$100. Some insurance carriers offer benefits to cover the cost. Check with your dentist to see if he or she offers these advanced screenings. You can also visit www.vizilite.com to find a ViziLite Plus provider, or www.velscope.com to search the user directory for a local VELscope provider.
Cancers that can be detected
Should any screenings—traditional or advanced—provide abnormal results, the dentist will refer you to a surgeon, who will take a biopsy of the abnormal tissue and determine whether or not you have oral cancer, and if you have cancer, the surgeon will determine what type of cancer it is. Unlike the screenings, biopsy results can take several days to obtain.
Regarding the types of oral cancers that can be detected, Rob E. Sable, D.D.S., F.A.G.D., a dental practitioner in Alpharetta says, “More than 90 percent of oral cancers that are detected through biopsies are squamous cell carcinomas. The other 10 percent include salivary gland tumors, lymphoma and sarcoma.”
Who should be screened
According to Sable, “Oral cancer screening should begin by age 18 and be performed annually. People who are high risk should be evaluated every 6 months.” While this is a good rule of thumb, Wolff points out that, “Even though it is rare in children, we know that many oral cancers are caused by the HPV virus, so it can be found in anyone.
A few facts about oral cancer:
• Oral cancer strikes men twice as often as women.
• The human papillomavirus is the No. 1 precursor for cervical cancer and now is being found in the oral cavity, especially in patients ages 18-39.
• Three times more women get oral cancer than cervical cancer.
—Dina J. Giesler, D.D.S., M.A.G.D.
You don’t need to sacrifice the health of your teeth for a sparkling-white smile, but you should be cautious about which whitening treatments you consider. Atlanta dental experts weigh in on your options:
Achieve quick results with Zoom! teeth-whitening. During the treatment, a whitening gel is applied to your teeth, and a special blue light is shined on the teeth, activating the gel. The process takes between 15 and 20 minutes, and is repeated two to three times per visit. The effectiveness of Zoom! is profound, says Debra Gray King, D.D.S., cosmetic dentist with the Atlanta Center for Cosmetic Dentistry. “Your teeth can get an average of eight shades whiter.”
Cost: The in-office Zoom! treatment runs from $450-$1,000
The Boost whitening treatment is performed by a dentist in-office, and, according to Susan Estep, D.M.D., and Peter Boulden, D.M.D., co-owners of Atlanta Dental Spa in Roswell, follows the same procedure as Zoom! but without the light. Instead, a gel sits on the teeth for 20 minutes and is rinsed off, and the 20-minute cycle is repeated for a total of 3 cycles per visit.
Cost: Approximately $500-$1,000
A new twist on professional teeth bleaching, Deep Bleaching offers permanent whitening results, according to Shai T. Hall, D.D.S., owner of The Dental Spa in Marietta. Hugh Flax, D.D.S., owner of Atlanta Aesthetic and Laser Dentistry, explains that bleaching trays are made in your dentist’s office from impressions of your teeth. After the first in-office treatment, you take the trays and a gel home for 14 days of treatments, and then return for a final in-office treatment, after which your teeth will be dramatically whiter.
Cost: Expect to pay up to $1,500