The everyday task of brushing her teeth has become a daily reminder of what Betty Sawyers has gone through. On three different occasions her dentist found pre-cancerous sores in her mouth during routine exams.
"I really think that regular check-ups are very, very important and fortunately, I've lived that," says Sawyers.
Had her dentist not found the problem, Betty may have developed oral cancer. And like many patients, she may never have known anything was wrong until it was too late.
Dr. Susan Mallery says, "The somewhat frightening thing about oral cancer is very frequently the early phases are not painful at all."
And Dr. Mallery of Ohio State's James Cancer Hospital says that's where the dentist comes in. Her advice is to go to your dentist often and specifically ask them to check for signs of oral cancer. Be on the lookout for velvety white or red patches and for sores that bleed easily or don't heal. While it's true that oral cancer strikes mostly older people, it can strike anyone.
"We need to be careful not to develop an age bias and just think that this is a disease of patients over 50," explains Dr. Mallery. "I mean, we have certainly seen a cohort of patients in their 20s, it seems to be even in young women."
Even though tobacco and alcohol can dramatically increase your risk, one out of every four patients with oral cancer never used tobacco or alcohol. So the next time you decide to put off that trip to the dentist, just remember that a simple exam can do more than protect your teeth. It could save your life.