Oral cancer is often ignored because people falsely believe that they get the disease only if they drink heavily or smoke. I don’t drinking excessively, nor do I smoke, but 15 years ago I was one of the 35,000 people diagnosed with oral cancer each year in the United States.

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and I hope sharing my personal story will help health insurance agents and brokers understand the importance of oral health screenings and encouraging clients to build relationships with their dentists and primary care physicians.

Oral cancer (oral cavity and pharynx) is one of the deadliest cancers with a 61% 5-year survival rate, according to National Cancer Institute data. In contrast, prostate cancer has a nearly 100% 5-year survival rate, according to the institute.

The 5-year survival rate for oral cancer has not improved significantly in the past 50 years because, until recently, the standard screening method had not changed – typically a visual and manual examination of the mouth, head and neck. This method often led to first discovery at advanced stages of oral cancer.

Today, light contrast screening expands upon visual and manual examination, which may detect oral cancer and treat it earlier than in the past. This test uses light to distinguish between healthy tissue and potentially abnormal tissue. A brush biopsy is often done as a follow-up to light contrast screening or if there is an obvious area of suspicious tissue. Any abnormality, discovered either through a visual exam, light contrast screening or brush biopsy, will likely result in a referral to an oral surgeon who will probably recommend a surgical (also called incisional) biopsy, still the “gold standard” for making a final diagnosis of oral cancer.

It’s important for more dental plans to cover annual oral cancer screenings to increase early detection. Visiting the dentist at least twice each year is also important in detecting oral cancer and other major illnesses.

While oral cancer can strike anyone, the leading risk factors include smoking, chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol. In recent years, human papillomavirus (HPV) is also thought to be an additional risk factor, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Still, many victims of this illness have none of the risk factors. Proper screening is the key.

What can you do to help? Promote Oral Cancer Awareness Month in April by sharing educational pieces with your clients, friends and family. Strike up a conversation about the importance of meeting with a dentist regularly. Make the topic viral and post the warning signs on your Twitter or Facebook page and encourage your clients, and employees of benefits clients, to seek care right away if they have any of the signs below:

  • Red and/or white spots in your mouth or on your lips.
  • Sores in your mouth or on your lips that do not heal.
  • Unusual changes to the surface of your mouth or lip tissue.
  • Bleeding in the mouth.
  • Loose teeth.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Ear pain.
  • Numbness of the tongue or other mouth parts.
  • Jaw swelling.

Make sure your clients and loved ones understand the importance of a dental plan that covers oral cancer screenings. I know from personal experience, as a dentist and a patient, that oral health is an important part of overall health and regular checkups and screenings are critical.

Fortunately my dental training enabled me to detect the problem through a self examination and follow-up with my physician for additional treatment. Because I caught the disease early, following minor surgery, I live to tell the story. People don’t have to be dentists to save their own lives; they should make an appointment to see their dentists regularly.

-ab