April is National Cancer Control Month. It is dedicated to raising awareness for cancer prevention and treatment throughout the US. As a dental provider you can take a vital role with your patients in raising awareness and encouraging treatment.
Having difficult conversations with patients is part of the job. You may have to discuss the need for a treatment like a root canal, crowns, or implants. There’s anxiety and cost associated with them. Now, telling a patient that they need an oral cancer screening is a whole different type of conversation.
Just uttering the word ‘cancer’ strikes fear in most people. Outcomes are much less certain. Dentists can't use amalgam or porcelain to fix a tongue or jaw that's cancerous. They also leave their patients with a great deal of anxiety because suspecting cancer based on a visual exam is not the same as confirming it with a biopsy or other reliable test.
You will want to have a formal plan for breaking news of this sort to your patients. We will take a closer look at the conditions and some strategies you can use to provide patients with the help they need. We also have a resource with Oral Cancer Awareness Tips that you can share with your patients.
Common symptoms of oral cancer:
Head and neck cancer is not often talked about. The most common forms are oral and oropharyngeal cancers. They can develop on the lips, cheeks, and teeth - as well as other areas of the mouth.
Like most cancers, the signs and symptoms can vary from person to person. Here are some of the common symptoms found in cases of oral cancer:
- Swelling in the neck
- A lump in the cheek
- Difficulty swallowing or chewing.
- Trouble moving the jaw or tongue.
- Loosening of the teeth
- Pain in the teeth or jaw
- Voice changes
Top tips for talking to patients:
Dentists are at the front line of detecting oral cancer in the early stages. After all, these cancers start out as abnormalities in the mouth. Here some ideas of how to approach the topic of oral cancer screenings and best guide your patients:
- Seeing a specialist is generally required to confirm oral cancer, so patients should be given a list of referrals to qualified oral surgeons. Dentists can also offer the assistance of their office staff in setting up the appointment.
- As soon as the patient hears the word cancer, he or she will likely shut down and be unable to process more information. Clients should be given written materials which talk about the screening tests, and possible treatments.
- A hygienist or dental assistant should be present when the patient is told. This individual serves as a witness and can help calm upset patients.
- While a visual exam is insufficient to make a diagnosis, patients should be counseled that many sores and lesions are not cancerous. If a routine screening uncovers a suspicious area, dentists should stress getting it tested without worrying the patient too much. They should also go over risk factors as patient history can sway the need to get a screening.
The key to discussing oral cancer screenings with patients is to impart their importance without causing unnecessary fear. It's a balance that takes finesse and a good deal of compassion.
Disclaimer: This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute providing medical advice or professional services.