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Oral Exam
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Oral cancer is a killer. Over 7500 people in the United States will die from it this year. Two-thirds will be men, and one-third women. Famous victims include Babe Ruth, Humphrey Bogart, and Lana Turner.

Twenty-five percent of people diagnosed with oral cancer die from it – half within five years of diagnosis. Risk factors for oral cancer include drinking, smoking, and promiscuity.

Using tobacco – whether smoked, chewed, or sniffed – increases the chance of contracting oral cancer. So does alcohol use. One beer a day puts you in a higher risk category. The more you drink, the greater the risk. Combining tobacco and alcohol use dramatically increases oral cancer risk. Both put body tissues in contact with chemicals that alter cell structure. Used together, they are deadly. Alcohol dehydrates cell walls and enhances the ability of tobacco carcinogens to enter cells.

Promiscuity is another major risk factor. Exposure to either Human Papilloma Virus or the viruses associated with HIV and AIDS increase oral cancer risk. In an era where many have been seduced into believing that “oral sex really isn’t sex,” oral surfaces get exposed to these viral agents. Risk increases with the number of sexual partners. Being a straight arrow only reduces your chances of encountering oral cancer – it does not eliminate them.

Dentist First Line of Defense

Your dentist is your first line of defense. Oral cancer survival rates increase dramatically, if it is detected early, especially if lesions are found and removed while they are pre-cancerous. Since oral cancers develop on the surfaces of the mouth, they are easily detectable.

Dentists and their assistants screen for oral cancers during a dental checkup. If you do not smoke or drink heavily, that examination, during your semiannual or annual cleaning, is adequate. If you indulge in risky activities, especially if you chew tobacco and drink, quarterly checkups are advisable.

A visual inspection helps detect cancerous lesions. But it does not always reveal potentially cancerous sites while they are in their pre-cancerous phase. New techniques for detecting these pre-cancerous sites have been developed. Dentists use a special light which causes potential lesions to fluoresce or glow under this light, making them easy to spot early, before becoming cancerous. Some dentists are offering this additional screening as part of a checkup. It often costs extra – between $50 and $100, typically. This may not be covered by insurance.

Is it worth the extra expense? You need to make informed decisions based on your dentist's opinion and taking into consideration whether or not you have a number of these risks factors.

It boils down to the old highwayman’s demand. Which means more? Your money or your life?

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By Mark N. Lardas. Copyright © 2008 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

www.oralcancerfoundation.orgwww.ada.org/, and www.cancer.gov/

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