Over 53,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2022, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Under 60% of those who are diagnosed with this disease can be expected to survive for five years after their diagnosis, but those rates can be significantly higher when the disease is detected and treated early. Dentists are often the first to spot oral cancers, so access to regular dental care can be lifesaving.

Here are five ways you can help protect your employees from oral cancer and support employees who receive a positive diagnosis.

1. Encourage your employees to get regular dental exams

As part of regular adult dental exams, dentists check for indications of oral cancer. This typically involves performing a physical examination and may also include asking patients about risk factors and tell-tale symptoms of the disease.

In addition to making it more likely that oral cancer will be caught in its earliest stages when its more treatable, regular visits to the dentist can help your employees’ heart health and even help diagnose diabetes.

All Delta Dental plans cover diagnostic and preventive services at low or no out-of-pocket cost to members.

2. Understand the risk factors for oral cancer

Age is frequently named as the primary risk factor for oral cancer, but it isn’t the only one. Over 20% of oral cancer cases occur in patients younger than 55. Smoking or using other tobacco products is a major risk factor for the development of oral cancer, as is alcohol abuse. Additionally, certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) have been linked to oral cancer.

Fortunately, dentists are able to assist with all of these issues. For example, dentists are trained to identify the damage that smoking causes to the mouth and assist employees with quitting. As trained health professionals, dentists can also administer HPV vaccines to help protect their younger patients from developing oral cancer in the future.

To spread awareness, you can share these materials with your employees:

3. Be ready for employees’ questions

An employee who has just received a positive cancer diagnosis is likely to be experiencing a whirlwind of emotions. Once the dust settles, employees will likely have questions about the logistical side of paying for treatment, job security and resources available to them as they battle cancer. You should be prepared to answer employees’ questions about the following topics:

  • Medical and prescription drug coverage, including cancer-specific programs
  • Employee assistance and cancer navigation programs
  • Leaves of absence
  • Workplace accommodations, including flexible scheduling
  • Wellness programs

4. Educate employees on the importance of dental care

Working with a dentist to maintain dental health is essential for employees who are battling cancer. Whether an employee has not yet begun treatment, is actively undergoing treatment or has already completed it, dentists are valuable allies.

Dentists can be sure to identify treat minor oral health issues such as fillings before chemo- or radiation therapy begin. They can also help employees deal with the side effects of treatment, such as dry mouth, reduced white blood cell count, mouth sores, pain and more.

5. Be supportive, attentive and encouraging

When an employee opens up about a cancer diagnosis, it’s important to respond with empathy. There are organizations that offer training on how to best manage and assist employees undergoing cancer and other challenges. In the absence of specialized training, you can be effective communicating with employees simply by being supportive and encouraging.

Examples of supportive statements include:

  • “I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but we’re here to help however we can.”
  • “If you want to talk about this, I’m here. If you need space, that’s OK, too.”
  • “Let me know what I can do to help you.”

Encouraging statements might sound like:

  • “You’re a valuable member of this team, and we’ll work together to keep you on it.”
  • “I want to hear how you’re doing. Let’s check in regularly.”

One thing you don’t want to do is make your employee’s situation about anything other than the employee. You might want to avoid:

  • Offering advice if the employee hasn’t asked for it.
  • Trying to cheer up the employee or brushing off their concerns. This can seem to the employee like their feelings aren’t being validated.
  • Sharing stories about yourself or others. Unless the employee asks to hear such stories, let them focus on their own experiences instead and just listen — even if listening means being OK with silence.

The most important thing you can do for employees who are confronting oral cancer is to recognize that you and your company’s place is to be an ally. You can’t fight cancer for your employees, but you can ensure that they have the support and the resources they need to give it their all.