Lymphomas: What Your Dental Visit Can Reveal

Lymphoma is a cancer of the body's immune system, also known as the lymphatic system. Lymphomas are classified into two types: Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in the United States, making up roughly 4 percent of all cancers. Occurring at any age, it can affect children and young adults as well as the older adult population. The chances of developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma increase with age, and half of all patients diagnosed are over the age of 65.

Two Types of Lymphoma: What's the Difference?

Lymphoma occurs when lymphocytes (the white blood cells that help fight infection) become out of control and divide in an abnormal way or don't die when they should. Healthy lymphocytes travel around your body through the lymphatic system and are found in clusters of lymph nodes. These glands in your neck, chin, groin and armpits are where cells can abnormally replicate.

Under a microscope, if a specific cell called Reed-Sternberg is detected, the diagnosis is Hodgkin's lymphoma, says Mayo Clinic. If these cells are not detected, it is considered non-Hodgkin's.

Signs and Symptoms

Many of the symptoms of lymphoma can mimic other ailments and include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes or glands in the neck, groin and armpits
  • Mouth sores, swelling and pain

In some lymphomas, rampantly replicating cells can collect in other areas of your body's immune system like your thymus and spleen. The risk of developing lymphomas is increased in people living with HIV, notes the ACS.

Dental Detectives

Routine physicals and blood work can discover a lymphoma, but sometimes an ordinary dental checkup can be critical in revealing signs before other symptoms are present. Swollen glands are usually painless and may go unnoticed until you come under a trained eye. If you've ever felt your dentist sweep their hands down your neck during an oral cancer screening, they are checking for swollen lymph nodes in your neck.

A literature review by the European Institute of Oncology notes that the oral signs of lymphomas such as ulcerations, pain, swelling and loose teeth can often be mistaken for other conditions such as periodontal disease. Making regular appointments with your dentist and asking for regular oral cancer screenings can help determine when a problem isn't merely caused by decay.

Treatment

Lymphoma treatment will be determined by the type of the disease and at what stage it was diagnosed. In some slow-growing cases, there may be no treatment other than closely monitoring blood work and symptoms. More severe or aggressive types may require radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted drug therapies and possibly a bone marrow transplant. The ACSwrites that your cancer care team will likely include a hematologist, who specializes in diagnosing diseases of the blood. Ultimately, the goal is to destroy the cancer cells and achieve remission of the disease.

Good health and disease prevention is everyone's number one priority — including your dentist's. Seeking routine medical and dental care can help you obtain an early and accurate diagnosis of oral cancer and learn how to prevent it altogether. Although it might be overwhelming, seeking care and up-to-date treatment options for lymphomas can help you cope and make confident treatment decisions.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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