Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee, a Nashville-based nonprofit dedicated to providing support, education, and hope to anyone impacted by cancer, and Delta Dental of Tennessee have partnered to support individuals living with oral cancer and raise awareness of the disease and the importance of early detection.
On average, three Tennesseans are diagnosed with oral cancers each day, and about 54,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, Delta Dental said.
Steve Travis was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2012 and underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and recovery into 2013. But he didn’t consider himself a “support group kind of person” until 2014, when he got involved with the Gilda’s Club Head and Neck Cancer Support Group.
“I knew I just couldn’t do it on my own anymore. I had great support in my personal life, but no one else had been through exactly what I was going through,” said Travis. “At Gilda’s, there was a whole room full of people, smiling people, and they all understood. Sitting in that group environment, listening and sharing, it didn’t take me long to realize that it was where I needed to be.”
Travis is cancer free today and continues to be closely monitored by his health team, including his dentist, Dr. Daron Clark.
“When you are diagnosed with cancer, you learn how to keep a lot of appointments, and I was, and continue to be, so lucky to receive terrific care. My dentist was an active part of my health team following treatment, and he continues to approach my exams with the previous cancer in mind,” Travis said.
Dentists play a critical role as the first line of defense in screening for oral cancers, Delta Dental said. Regular dental visits allow dentists to check patients for common signs of oral cancers, including lesions or sores that do not go away and red, white, or speckled patches inside the mouth. Dentists often refer patients with concerning signs or symptoms to an oral surgeon or other specialist for a biopsy and formal diagnosis.
“Don’t wait until you feel bad to see a doctor or until you have a toothache to see a dentist. Catching any kind of health problem early on is critical, and when it comes to cancer, early detection can be life-saving,” said Harriet Schiftan, MSW, MAJCS, president and CEO of Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee.
“This least year has been particularly challenging for our community. Many are immunocompromised, isolated, and dealing with an extra layer of financial stress that comes with a cancer diagnosis. Gilda’s Club and cancer support at no cost is made possible by generous partners like Delta Dental, and we are so grateful for this collaboration. Together, we’re ensuring no one has to face cancer alone,” said Schiftan.
Oral cancers often are discovered late, and as a result, the mortality rate is high, with an overall five-year survival rate of 66%, Delta Dental said. The timing of a diagnosis can be a matter of life and death, Delta Dental said, as the survival rate for oral cancers diagnosed at an early stage is 85%, but less than a third of cases are caught at this point.
Also, the survival rate for oral cancers that have spread regionally drops to 67%. For cancers that have spread throughout the body, it falls to 40%. This is especially worrisome in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Delta Dental said, which has led many people to delay routine preventive care and screenings.
New cancer diagnoses in the United States dropped by 50% in 2020, according to the director of the National Cancer Institute. But not because there was less cancer, Delta Dental said. It was simply diagnosed less often.
While anyone can develop oral cancer, certain individuals are at higher risk and should be even more vigilant about regular screenings. Significant risks include gender, as oral cancers are more than twice as common in men than in women; age, as the average age of diagnosis is 63, though one in five cases occur in individuals younger than 55; tobacco and/or alcohol use; and human papillomavirus infections, which have been linked to 70% of oropharyngeal cancers.
“We are proud to support Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee and the invaluable work they do to serve so many people in our community who have been impacted by cancer,” said Dr. Phil Wenk, CEO and president of Delta Dental of Tennessee. “Preventive screenings and care are essential to maintaining good health, and I encourage anyone who skipped checking in with their doctor or dentist last year to do so this summer.”
Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee membership, including access to more than a hundred monthly events, activities, and programs, is always free of charge. It offers a variety of diagnosis-specific support groups, including the Head and Neck Cancers Group, as well as support groups specific to age and role, including groups for teens and young adults with cancer and for friends, family, and other caregivers. Ongoing classes and workshops also include nutrition and cooking, movement and meditation, and the arts.