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Dentists Need More Training in Oral Cancer Detection

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More Training Needed for Oral Cancer Detection

Dentists Need More Training in Oral Cancer Detection

March 05, 2008

By: Meredith Fairbank for Dental1











Early signs that may indicate a need to screen for oral cancer:

  • Any lump or sore in the mouth that fails to heal and/or bleeds easily

  • A white or red patch in the mouth that will not go away

  • Thickening or soreness in the mouth, throat or tongue

  • Thickening or soreness in the mouth, throat or tongue



  • Early detection is key to improving the survival rate. But a study done by the University of Illinois at Chicago discovered that some dentists have an incomplete understanding of the nature of pre-malignant lesions and examination techniques. Although the dentists performed well in identifying the most common oral cancer forms and early lesions, many dentists lacked knowledge about risk factors. “Some dentists incorrectly identified tobacco or alcohol as the least important risk factor, when in fact they are the two most important,” said Charles LeHew of the UIC Cancer Center's Center for Population Health and Health Disparities and the Institute for Health Research and Policy.


    Thirty-three percent of the dentists had not had any oral cancer continuing education and 40 percent of those who had training, had trained more than two years prior to the survey. Training in risk counseling is rare, LeHew said. “There is a clear need for additional training and for greater vigilance.” Dentists across the country similarly lack training in detecting oral cancer.
    But there may be other reasons why oral cancer has not declined along with other cancers. For example, the new cancer treatments that are proving effective have not made their way into the world of dentistry. The PacMan treatment, as it is known, asks patients to imagine that a PacMan character is eating away the cancerous cells in his or her body. The visualization of course doesn’t have to be a yellow PacMac – it can be anything the patient is comfortable visualizing (from medicine to God to an army of antibodies) restoring the immune system to health. Guided imagery treatments seem to operate on a mind-body principal that has proven effective in combating cancer in children and adults in at least a percentage of cancer cases.
    Additional research is being conducted to learn more about these inexpensive treatment methods that were once considered too crazy to consider, despite the fact that mountains of data suggest that a happy person is a healthy person. Methods that take the whole person into consideration, mind as well as body, may turn out to be healthcare’s salvation.
    Keeping watch
    Patients should be vigilant to the early signs that could indicate a need for oral cancer screening. Early symptoms include a lumps or sores in the mouth that fail to heal or that bleed easily, or developing a white or red patch in the mouth that will not go away. Other possible signs are thickening or soreness in the mouth, throat or tongue, or difficulty chewing and/or swallowing food.


    “Dentists are not going to diagnosis cancer,” LeHew said. “They are going to find potentially-dangerous lesions and refer the patient to an oral surgeon… The expectations currently are not clear for what dentists should do in regards to oral cancer. We need to identify what the best practices are. There is still a lot of work to be done to get there.”

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