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Dental checkups can be life-saving

Health District dentists can often save a patient’s diseased tooth. Sometimes they save the patient’s life.

Dr. Leith Rupp, Health District Family Dental ClinicThat’s what happened last year when Jan, a resident of northern Larimer County, came to the Health District Family Dental Clinic for what she thought was a painful, abscessed tooth. Her dentist, Dr. Leith Rupp, suspected something more serious.

“It was almost immediately apparent that this was more than just a toothache,” says Rupp. “This particular oral cancer has a very distinct appearance.”

After discussing his suspicions with Jan (not her real name), Rupp referred the 56-year-old food services manager to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, who diagnosed stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma.

What followed were months of chemotherapy and a 17-hour surgery to replace a portion of Jan’s jaw with bone from her leg. Her recovery has been faster than expected, she says, and there is currently no evidence of any remaining cancer.

“Honestly, Dr. Rupp saved my life,” Jan says. “He knew right away what it is was and steered me in the right direction. I will be eternally grateful to him for that.”

Nearly 53,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with oral or oropharyngeal cancer, and about 10,000 die from the conditions, which often can be spotted early during a routine dental exam.  

“An oral cancer screening is part of every routine dental checkup,” Dr. Rupp says. It’s another reminder, he says, of the importance of maintaining good oral health.

Jan didn’t have dental insurance, however, which discouraged her from having the recommended twice-yearly cleanings and checkups. Then she learned about the Family Dental Clinic.

The Health District’s Family Dental Clinic provides free and low-cost services to adults and children who have trouble affording dental care. It serves residents of the Health District who meet financial guidelines and have no private commercial insurance.  Patients pay low sliding fees based on their income. The clinic also sees patients who are covered by Health First Colorado (Medicaid) and Child Health Plan Plus (CHP+), as well as seniors who receive state financial assistance for dental care.

 “I know now the importance of having dental visits on a regular basis,” Jan says. “I think I could have caught the cancer a lot earlier had I gone more often.”