ORAL CANCER: Smoking wreaks havoc with the health of the entire mouth, say experts

Article by Don Harrison, Health Reporter
published in The Province on Sunday, April 30, 2006

Smoking inflicts a litany of abuse on the mouth, but puffer or no, there’s apparently only one main consideration these days when visiting the dentist.

“The first thing people want, regardless of what else is going on in their mouths, is whiter, brighter teeth,” says Vancouverite Karen Bogdanovich, who has spent the past 17 years mining the minerals in people’s mouths as a dental hygienist. “But I tell smokers, ‘You are kind of wasting your money.’”

The hypnotic power of TV’s whiter-than white-teeth – along with advertising millions telling us we must have a product we lived happily without for centuries – appears to be binding many smokers to the damage their addiction is doing to a key body part.

And for those thousands of British Columbians who smoke and are concerned enough with their appearance to spend big money on whiteners, Bogdanovich tells them to look more closely at the mirror.
“You’ve seen heavy smokers,” she says, “they just look older.”

Just another scare tactic from the medical professional? Read on.
“I have never had a single patient come back after they were diagnosed with mouth cancer,” she says.

According for three per cent of call cancers, an oral cancer diagnosis is not an automatic death sentence, but given the typically lat diagnosis of the disease, only 20 per sent live at least five years. As well, treatment needed for survival can be extreme and disfiguring.

The combination of smoking and heavy drinking greatly increases a person’s likelihood of contracting oral cancer. The disease typically is found in the lips, the tissue under the tongue or behind wisdom teeth, the cheeks and the front two-thirds of the tongue.

“About 75 per cent of oral cancers are attributed to tobacco,” says Dr. Miriam Rosin, director of the B.C. Cancer Agency’s oral-cancer program. “There has been very little change in survivor rates anywhere in the world in the past three decades.”

But the bad news extends beyond deadly mouth cancer. Bogdanovich has a top 10 list of smoking ills:
1. Tar and chemicals in cigarettes damage gum tissue by encouraging bacteria growth.
2. Inflammation of the hard palate, the bony roof of the mouth.
3. They can’t smell as well, so puffers usually have bad breath.
4. Gums heal slower after surgery.
5. Tar becomes plaque; the more you smoke, the worse it gets.
6. The thousands of chemicals in cigarette smoke eat away at jawbone support. Exposed root surfaces are hot- and cold-sensitive.
7. Smoking subverts whitening efforts. With more root exposed by smoking, that more porous area is harder to brighten.
8. Guilty smokers can over-brush and scrub harder, creating overly sensitive teeth and gums.
9. Pulling teeth is problematic, as the clot needed to stop post-extraction bleeding will materialize more slowly, increasing risk of infection.
10. Mouth sores result because the entire region is being damaged by thousands of carcinogens with every drag, literally hundreds of times per day for many people.

“The body really does try and heal the damage” caused by smoking, adds Bogdanovich, “but you don’t get the really good, active blood supply” that a non-smoker does.

Bogdanovich recommends nicotine patches and gums for prospective ex-smokers, but says the main weapon needed is a giant-sized tube of determination.

“Twenty-five per cent of quitters fall back with 48 hours,” she says. “Most try six or seven times before they quit” for good.

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