Times of San Diego: Opinion: Oral Cancer in Seniors Is More Common Than You Might Think
By Dr. Karen Becerra
While people might prioritize physical and mental well-being, many may not put the words “dental” and “health” next to each other in their minds.
“Dental work is cosmetic,” they might say, as they put off seeing the dentist for another year. “Everyone has problems with their teeth. Besides, my insurance doesn’t cover it.”
To those people, I would say simply that the mouth-body connection is real. Oral health is often a gateway into our overall health. In fact, neglecting your mouth’s health can actually be life-threatening in some cases, and that’s something everyone—from doctors to insurers to patients and their caretakers—needs to know right now.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness month. More than 50,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, whether in their lips, mouth, tongue, or throat. Symptoms of oral cancer can be as obvious as lip sores that don’t heal, difficulty swallowing, and reddish/white patches inside the mouth, or not immediately obvious, like ear pain and loose teeth. Most notably, most patients who are newly diagnosed with oral cancer are senior citizens aged 55 and above, with the average age for diagnosis at 62.
Factors like ongoing irritation from poorly fitting dentures, long-term heavy use of tobacco and alcohol, contracting the human papillomavirus (HPV), and family history also greatly increase this risk—but people can reduce their chances of developing oral cancer with just a few simple steps, such as quitting smoking or never starting, using alcohol only in moderation, and regular visits to a dentist.
Unfortunately, the same senior-citizen demographic who are most likely to develop oral cancer are the least likely to have reliable dental care—and that is a problem. One in four seniors have no teeth left at all, due to oral health concerns, and 70 percent of seniors have no dental insurance. The group that is most in need of oral cancer screenings often can’t afford critical dental care that could save their lives.
The nonprofit Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center aims to solve these problems—and it’s made a difference in hundreds of seniors’ lives, as patient Gary O. can attest. After being diagnosed with oral cancer in 2015, Gary was referred by his hematologist to our nonprofit for services.