Ann McKay, 38, from Pittsboro, North Carolina, was far from happy after visiting her dentist for a checkup in October 2003. Over the previous year, a lump the size of a pencil eraser had grown slowly inside her upper lip. At her regular dental checkup, McKay, a stay-at-home mom with a two-year-old daughter, said, “I have this thing in my mouth; it bothers me, and I’d like to have it taken out.” Her dentist referred her to a nearby periodontist, Timothy Godsey, DDS, who thought the growth, like most such growths, was harmless. But he removed the tissue and sent it for testing to laboratories at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry. There, Alice Curran, DMD, an oral pathologist and associate professor, peered at the tissue under a microscope. She noted a “huge organized collection” of crinkly white blood cells, way too many and way too large to be normal. Her diagnosis: cancer.
“I didn’t know what non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was. Then you get on a computer and you’re scared half to death,” recalls McKay. At the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill, McKay had chest x-rays and blood work, a full-body PET scan and a CAT scan. The tests showed no other signs of cancer. Nevertheless, for 20 days in December 2003 and January 2004, she underwent radiation therapy on her lip to make sure the cancer was vanquished. Seven months later, McKay became pregnant with her second child. Gabriel was born in April, and mother and son are healthy. “I’m a very lucky person,” she says.
Besides spotting lymphoma, dentists can recognize signs of leukemia and oral cancer, an extremely dangerous and disfiguring cancer that’s diagnosed in 29,000 Americans each year and kills 7,000. “When people go to the dentist, they should expect to get an oral cancer exam,” during which the dentist thoroughly checks the tongue, palate, inside of the cheeks, and lips for any bumps or unusual sores, says Bruce Pihlstrom, DDS, acting director of the center for clinical research at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. If the dentist doesn’t do it, the patient should ask, he says.
Diagnosing cancer is just the beginning. Dentists can also spot signs of gastrointestinal problems like Crohn’s disease, skin diseases, autoimmune diseases and more. “I cannot tell you how many times I have seen patients with multiple gum infections and diagnosed them with diabetes,” says Robert Ghalili, DMD, a periodontist in private practice in New York City. “The body is never really resting when you have a mouth infection.” Another one of his patients had been suffering from what doctors thought was chronic fatigue syndrome. But her energy level rebounded when her serious gum disease was treated.
If more people realized the consequences of not taking care of their teeth and gums, they’d probably call a dentist tomorrow. Still, 35 percent of Americans over the age of two haven’t been to one in the past year. “People lose sight of the fact that their head is attached to the rest of their body,” says Kenneth Krebs, DMD, president of the American Academy of Periodontology. Healthy teeth and gums let us talk, smile, laugh and kiss without embarrassment. That’s reason enough to take care of our oral health. But as medical science reaffirms that head and body are indeed connected, there’s more reason than ever to brush twice a day, floss daily, get dental checkups every six months, or see a dentist promptly if you have a problem.
Ken Michener learned that lesson the hard way. As he recovered from his illness, Michener remained at home for a month, wearing a round-the-clock intravenous line that kept antibiotics coursing through his bloodstream. Nurses came to his home twice a week to change his bandages and check on him. “If you have a problem, you’ve got to take care of it. Don’t wait. Don’t be macho,” Michener says. “I was stubborn,” he concludes. “Not anymore.”
By Dan Ferber
From Reader’s Digest