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861 Willow Drive
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Telephone: (919) 942-2154
A holistic approach to oral health and wellness.

“I’ve Seen Oral Cancer Five or Six Times
in the 28 Years I’ve Been in Practice”

“Cancer doesn’t discriminate,” notes Dr. C. Michael Willock, a leading Chapel Hill holistic dentist. “In fact, cancer can attack any part of the human body, including the mouth. Although oral cancer is not as common as some other forms of this dread disease, it is the cause of nearly 14,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Every routine dental exam is also a search for signs of oral cancer as well as common dental issues.

Dr. Willock demonstrates proper use of the Velscope in the search for signs of oral cancer.

“I’ve seen oral cancer probably five or six times in the twenty-eight years I’ve been in practice and each time it’s really scary,” he notes. “The hair stands up on the back of my neck when I see evidence of cancer.

“Several weeks ago, my hygienist was doing a routine cleaning exam and she saw something under the person’s tongue that didn’t look quite right. It looked odd. So she pulled out the Velscope (see photo) and we both observed a little bit of blackness instead of typical pink tissue. The little black spot was small, but she and I both agreed it looked problematic. Let’s put it this way, if I’m going to err, I want to err on the side of caution.

“We sent the patient to our oral surgeon and he came to the same conclusion and biopsied this little spot. The report came back positive. It was minor; it was cancer in the very early stages. And that’s when you want to find a cancer. The oral surgeon excised this problem tissue, and has scheduled follow up visits with this patient every six months, since we now know that this patient is predisposed to oral cancer.”

The Velscope

Dr. Willock’s hygienist routinely uses a Velscope during dental exams to carefully monitor the patient’s mouth for signs of cancer. This instrument, he explains, “enables you to see cellular, structural, and/or metabolic changes in tissue. The Velscope shines a green light, causing the oral cavity to fluoresce. If a cancer is present, a black spot will appear. Cancer cells pick up a special light and reflect it back out in a different wavelength, making it easy to recognize.

Stage Four Cancer

“About a year ago I examined a patient who had a sore on the right lateral border of her tongue. She said it had been hurting for years, and she often complained to her family physician that her tongue hurt. Finally she realized that there was something really wrong going on, and, some years ago, she took her hurting tongue to her dentist.  He quickly discovered that her tongue was rubbing right up against a major, big amalgam filling right on the molar. Unfortunately, she didn’t come to me. I didn’t get to meet her until later. But her dentist did a thorough exam in her mouth, flipped over her tongue and discovered the problem immediately: a large, stage four cancer. In the process of treatment, she lost half of her tongue and part of the floor of her mouth.  Now she’s again learning to speak. For dentists and patients alike, that’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

Amalgam: Another Threat to Oral Health

“Another oral concern,” Dr. Willock points out, “is amalgam, commonly used in filling cavities. Over the years of continually stressing the teeth by chewing and thermal cycling, there’s an accordion effect with amalgam that eventually cracks the teeth.”

Amalgam, he explains, is primarily made up of mercury and silver. “It gets brittle, and from the day it’s placed in the mouth, it begins to slowly leak because it does not bond to the tooth, but is rather a tight press fit. Mercury and silver are positive ions that repel each other, like two common poles of a magnet, creating out-gassing. And mercury is a highly toxic substance according to many governmental agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the manufacturers of the amalgam material. Many people have a genetic predisp-osition for sensitivity to mercury and other heavy metals.”

“Cancer can appear anywhere,” explains Dr. Willock. “One of the places where it is relatively common is in the mouth of an alcoholic who is also a heavy smoker. The alcohol acts as a solvent and carries the toxic tobacco elements deep down into the tissue where a cancer can start growing. While studying to be a dentist, I dissected cadavers and had to section open the lungs. That’s when I saw the lungs of a smoker first-hand under the microscope, and it was a scary sight. They were black, not pink like healthy tissue.”

Other possible signs and symptoms of cancer are lesions and lumps, thickening in the oral soft tissue, soreness, feeling like something is caught in the throat, and difficulty chewing or swallowing.  A common risk factor for oral cancer is aging, notes Dr. Willock.  “Everything becomes more vulnerable with age and sun exposure. Basal cell carcinoma is oftentimes found on the upper lip and on the forehead, particularly on farmers, who work outside all day in the sun.  If you use chewing tobacco, you are at a greater risk of developing cancer. People will put a wad down in their gum between their jawbone and their cheek and let it just sit there, creating the right conditions for cancer to grow.”

Dr. Willock has had personal experience with the damages of cancer. “My mother-in- law had a stroke while in a nursing home and developed a squamous cell carcinoma under her right eye. It was right over the infra-orbital foramen. If you draw a straight line from your pupil to your canine tooth, in the middle of that line there’s a nerve. There’s a hole in your skull where a nerve bundle comes out of and fans out in all directions; one branch ends up the nose, one up around the side of the eye, the lower eyelid, in the lip, and down into the tooth. The danger was that it had the possibility of metastasizing down into that nerve bundle and following it up to where all the branches go.

So if I see anything on the face or in the mouth that I think looks a little peculiar, I’m going to send the patient to the oral surgeon for a second look and perhaps a biopsy. I’d rather be wrong - and I have been wrong a few times, I’ve been over-cautious--but I’d rather do that, than miss one. And patients appreciate that.”

“I’ve become very holistically-minded, and the older I get, the more I want to care for the whole body. I believe that God created our bodies to be self-healing and one of the best things we can do is get rid of all the known toxins in and around our bodies. Cigarettes, excessive alcohol, mercury—these and other toxins—need to be removed to give our bodies the chance to heal, with the nutrients we need to support healing.”

Dr. Willock is an accredited member of the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology (IAOMT), and completed an 83-hour post-graduate course in environmental medicine for the health care professional at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, in Scottsdale, Arizona.