With the right tools and the right approach, we have the ability to catch oral cancer before it’s too late.
by Rebecca Rosser, RDH, Aspen Dental for RDH Magazine, April Edition
As a hygienist, my top priority is keeping patients healthy. One of the easiest and most important things I do to care for my patients is screening for oral cancer.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, but screening for oral cancer is something we need to be doing all year long.
This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that 54,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer, and that nearly 11,000 people will die from it.
Those numbers are too high, especially when we have the tools at our disposal to catch oral cancer before it’s too late. I’m sure we would all rather be able to tell a patient, “I’ve found something, but we’ve caught it early and we can take care of it,” instead of “I’m so sorry.”
In my eleven years of experience, I’ve seen oral cancer screenings save countless lives. I want to make sure every hygienist knows how to talk to patients about oral cancer, how to perform the best possible screenings, and how to remove any barriers to screenings.
Be transparent with your patients about oral cancer screening
In my Aspen Dental office, every time a patient sits down in my chair, I am open and honest about their oral care. Oral cancer screenings are an important part of regular preventive health care, no matter your age, smoking status, or other health related behaviors.
Patients are always surprised when I tell them that oral cancer, in its early stages, doesn’t hurt. By the time we can see a bump or lesion with our naked eye, it’s usually too late, and the cancer has progressed to stage three or stage four, maybe even spreading to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.
Instead of waiting to see a bump or lesion, oral cancer screenings allow us to catch things early enough for intervention.
Use the best possible technologies to catch cancer early
At my Aspen Dental office, we use OralID technology and its fluorescence technology. By using its blue light, we can look deeper into the oral mucosa, seeing the green fluorescence of the normal healthy tissue and abnormalities that will appear much darker. This enables the clinician to catch oral cancer as early as stage one.
By the time you can see abnormalities during a conventional intraoral exam, it’s often too late for the patient. I recently had a new patient who came in with a dime-size lesion under the tongue. When I used the OralID to examine the lesion in more detail, I could see it was actually the size of a quarter. With cancer that advanced, it is likely the patient will lose much of the tongue and part of the jaw. If the patient had come in sooner, with the OralID and a proper screening, we could have intervened long before.
Remove barriers so patients can get regular oral cancer screenings
The biggest barrier to regular oral cancer screenings we hear from patients is money. While some dental insurance plans cover adjunctive oral cancer screenings, many do not. My patients often don’t want to spend the money on something they see as unnecessary. To overcome this, we have made the fee very affordable. Patients pay once per year, and every time they’re in my chair, I perform the screening.
Recently, I was performing an intraoral exam on a patient when I noticed some tissue discoloration. I recommended a screening, but the patient didn’t want to pay extra. I was deeply concerned by the abnormal area of tissue, so I offered the screening at no cost. With the OralID, I was able to see a dark patch under their tissue. The lesion ended up being cancer, and without the screening, that patient wouldn’t have known until the cancer had progressed even further.
Oral care is health care
Many patients think regular dental care is just about keeping their teeth clean and free of cavities, but as dental hygienists we know it’s so much more than that. By examining patients’ mouths and necks, I can see evidence of heart issues, diabetes, cancer, and many other diseases.
I talk to patients on a daily basis about what’s happening in their mouths and how it effects the rest of their bodies, and they’re always blown away, asking me, “Why didn’t anybody ever tell me this before?” As hygienists and dentistry professionals, it’s our duty to empower patients with as much information about their health as we can, and oral cancer screenings are one of the best tools we have to do that.
Rebecca Rosser, RDH at Aspen Dental, has more than eleven years of experience in the dental industry. Before becoming a hygienist, Rebecca worked as a respiratory therapist. During her time as a therapist, she saw many patients who had lost significant oral functionality due to cancer. Now, she’s a passionate proponent of oral cancer screenings, and she makes sure to talk to every patient she sees about the importance of preventive oral health care.