Afraid of the dentist chair?


Sitting in the dentist chair may make some uneasy, but regular dental appointments can be a lifesaver. Just ask Noreen Crifo, who is here today partly because her dentist detected early signs of oral cancer three years ago.

Noreen’s dentist first noticed a discolouration on her gum line and sent her to see an oral surgeon to investigate further. The dental specialist performed a biopsy, and the result was the diagnosis of a malignant cancer the size of a walnut inside her upper jaw. Luckily, it hadn’t spread.

“Dentists can detect lumps or discolourations in the mouth that might otherwise go unnoticed,” says Dr. Susan Sutherland, chief of dentistry at Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre. “If not caught early enough, oral cancer can spread to other areas and can be fatal. Unfortunately, many patients do not seek attention until they experience pain, or problems with chewing or swallowing. By this point, the cancer may have spread in the mouth or throat and to lymph nodes in the neck. If detected early, oral cancer is treatable and patients will experience minimal problems.”

The Ontario Dental Association (ODA) is encouraging people to stick out their tongues to their dentists, as part of a public awareness campaign launched during Oral Cancer Awareness week this past June. The ODA is a voluntary professional association that is the authoritative source of information of the dental profession in Ontario. It represents more than 6,300 or 80 per cent of the dentists practicing in the province.

“This year, Oral Cancer Awareness week was intended to make the public, and even dentists themselves, more aware of the critical role dentists play in early detection of oral cancer,” says Dr. Blake Clemes, president of the Ontario Dental Association. “Dentists look for oral cancer at each regular check up. By catching oral cancer in the early stages, the dentist helps dramatically increase the patient’s chance of survival!”

The department of dentistry at Sunnybrook & Women’s is one of the largest in Canada. The dental clinic provides dental care for patients with complex medical problems, including cancer. Specialized oral medicine clinics offer consultations and treatment for patients with diseases of the mouth. “We work closely with our medical and surgical colleagues at the Toronto Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre,” says Dr. Sutherland. “The multi-disciplinary approach to cancer care at Sunnybrook & Women’s provides seamless care from detection to treatment to rehabilitation and ongoing care for patients with mouth cancer.”

The cranio-facial prosthetics unit at the Toronto Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre, under the direction of dentist Dr. Jim Anderson, helps patients who have lost parts of their mouth or face to advanced cancer, by providing life-like tissue replacements.

“Patients with oral cancer require tremendous support as they go through treatment and afterwards,” says Dr. Sutherland. “At Sunnybrook & Women’s, the team consists of oncologists, nurses, speech pathologists, dietitians and dentists. By integrating care across disciplines in this way, the focus is always on the patient and his or her quality of life.”

Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre is transforming health care through the dedication of its more than 8,000 staff members who provide compassionate and innovative patient focused care. An internationally recognized leader in women’s health, academic research and education, and an affiliation with the University of Toronto, distinguishes Sunnybrook & Women’s as one of Canada’s premier health sciences centres. Sunnybrook & Women’s specializes in caring for newborns, adults and the elderly, treating and preventing cancer, heart problems, orthopaedic and arthritic conditions and traumatic injuries.