Dentists are doctors of oral health and because of their education and training, may see clues in a patient’s mouth that could suggest other diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and nutritional deficiencies. Regular dental visits, plus regular appointments with a primary physician, can help ensure these conditions are caught and treated early.

For example, at your next dental exam, your dentist may take a moment to feel the sides of your face, your jaw and your neck. This is an exam for oropharyngeal cancer, a type of cancer that occurs at the back of the mouth or top of the throat.

A close call

Sandy Wexler, a registered nurse from Houston, Texas, learned firsthand how important this exam can be. In July 2012, her dentist found an enlarged lymph node during her regular appointment. She sent Sandy to her physician. She was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

While most people associate HPV with cervical cancer, the back of the mouth and top of the throat are the most common sites for HPV-related cancers.

“I credit [my dentist] with saving my life,” she said.  ”Otherwise, it could have been six more months before this could have been diagnosed and found.”

Sandy has been cancer-free for five years since completing treatment at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

A disease on the rise

Sandy’s story has a happy ending, yet oropharyngeal cancer is on the rise. The American Cancer Society estimates 50,000 cases will be diagnosed this year.

That is why dentists are focused on prevention. Don’t be surprised if your dentist asks if you’ve received the HPV vaccine. While most people associate HPV with cervical cancer, the back of the mouth and top of the throat are the most common sites for HPV-related cancers. HPV vaccines protect against two common strains that are responsible for an estimated 60 percent of oropharyngeal cancer diagnosis. Sandy is also now a vocal proponent of HPV vaccination.

And if you use tobacco, talk to your dentist. It’s another serious risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer. In terms of your oral health and overall health, it’s never too late to stop using tobacco.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the American Dental Association. Other content in this publication was not developed by the ADA. Unless otherwise indicated, the ADA does not endorse any of the advertisers with this publication.