The Sexual Connection

Feb. 13, 2014
"Sex and Oral Health: What's the Connection?" Titles are meant to pique a participant's interest and generate curiosity in a program.

By Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, MED, FADIA, FAADH

"Sex and Oral Health: What's the Connection?" Titles are meant to pique a participant's interest and generate curiosity in a program. With this title, Jo-Anne Jones, RDH, is conveying a strong but urgent message to dental professionals about the burden of oropharyngeal cancer sexually transmitted by the human papillomavirus.

With statistics by the National Cancer Institute confirming that oropharyngeal cancers have risen 225% from 1998-2004, and discovery of cancer in the later stages having five-year survival rates of 30%, it is imperative that the dental hygienist becomes aware of oral cancer symptoms, which are often subtle and overlooked. If trends continue, within the decade oral cancer will become the nation's leading HPV-related cancer, surpassing cervical cancer.


Consider reading these articles by DePalma


Dental hygiene, while striving to be perceived as a more integral component of health care, stands strategically positioned on the front lines of early discovery. Patients whose disease is diagnosed in the early stage have an 80-90% survival rate. Dental hygienists participating in Jo-Anne's program will:

  • Understand critical statistical information regarding oral cancer
  • Discuss compelling information supporting the emergence of an atypical sexually-transmitted profile
  • Identify the dental professional's role in early discovery of mucosal tissue changes and potentially life-saving outcomes
  • Recognize the critical components of a comprehensive extra- and intraoral examination
  • Compare and contrast the value of adjunctive screening methods to complement the white-light examination.

Jo-Anne's program involves a PowerPoint presentation with the inclusion of video, breakout activities, and self-assessment exercises, along with a hands-on component, if applicable. Her handouts are different than the norm; she puts all of the key talking points of her program on the right side of the handout and all the references she used to develop the program on the left side. She also includes clinical resources and patient education materials because she feels dental hygienists often want more information on how to implement the new materials following the program. This format helps bridge the gap of integrating new knowledge into clinical practice.

Jo-Anne feels the value of this course is the attainment of knowledge in an area that has been highly overlooked. The stereotypical oral cancer patient used to be an older male who is a heavy smoker and drinker. That is no longer the case; younger males with no history of smoking are becoming higher-risk patients. Although geared toward dental hygienists, Jo-Anne believes the information is of strong importance to the entire dental team and anyone who is sexually active; it is especially relevant for parents of young teens.

Jo-Anne's journey and interest in the subject of oral cancer began a number of years ago when she began seeing trends in the emergence of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers and began utilizing VELscope in clinical practice. From her research, three years ago she created a program to educate dental professionals. In a cruel twist of fate, however, three days before she was to present the program at the Canadian Dental Hygienists' Association, her cousin, Bonnie, announced to the family that she had HPV-16 oropharyngeal cancer. Bonnie, who had dedicated her life to fitness and the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle for herself and her family, began the battle for her life. A short challenging year later, at the age of 46, Bonnie lost her courageous battle. The day after Bonnie's funeral, Jo-Anne received notification of a bittersweet award. Her article on HPV-related oral cancer was selected by PennWell Publishers (publishers of RDH magazine) as the "Most Important Dental Story Published in 2012 for the Dental Profession." The message of HPV oral cancer has now become Jo-Anne's passion and mission so that the loss of a life may not be in vain and that others may be saved.

Other programs Jo-Anne offers include:

  • "Shift Happens: Changing Paradigms in Oral Health Risk Assessment"
  • "The Dental Hygiene Process of Care: Is Your Practice on Track?"
  • "Whitening that Works! Exploring the Facts, the Fiction, and the Evidence"
  • "The Medical History: Understand, Synthesize, and Apply"

She also offers programs for entire dental teams that are designed to address the common challenges that all staff members face in day-to-day practice, including a new arena of motivational interviewing techniques for patients.

Jo-Anne is a graduate of George Brown College in Toronto, Ontario. She has always been a firm believer in lifelong learning and feels that has provided the foundation for a rewarding and fulfilling career. Several events and people have helped direct her career path, however.

First, a dentist who began as a respected colleague and developed into a treasured friend taught her the value of leaving one's signature and legacy on whatever one does. At the age of 41, Dr. George Smith was diagnosed with late-stage bone cancer. During his disease progression, he exuded great dignity. One event that impacted her the most was that he composed a letter to be distributed to his patient base, thanking them for the privilege of looking after their oral-health needs. He asked his entire team to review it and welcomed comments, as he said, "This is not my legacy; it's ours." Jo-Anne realized at that moment that as team members, we often belittle our contributions to the success of a practice instead of recognizing that each day we leave our signature on the practice and further develop our own legacy. She strives to convey that message in all her programs.

Secondly, the loss of her mother during a difficult time for the family propelled her along her career path. Jo-Anne's mother was caring for her stepfather, who was struggling with late-stage cancer and had been given only weeks to live. Perhaps due to the added stress and fear of losing someone so close, she suffered a major heart attack and died.

The next 10 weeks were painful for Jo-Anne, but somehow she believes it was an experience she would never want to miss. While spending countless hours caring for her stepfather, he shared powerful life principles that she will always cherish. During one conversation, they discussed what she wanted to do with her career because she was at a professional crossroads. She loved clinical hygiene but was looking for more diversity. He challenged her not to get "a job" but to pursue her dream. Together they defined her dream: RDH Connection. RDH Connection serves a perceived need to support the dental hygiene professional community with evidence-based information that contributes to greater satisfaction and enjoyment in day-to-day practice while providing the clinical resources and hands-on training to complement the science. As Jo-Anne's career has evolved, she feels very blessed to have been involved in such rewarding and fulfilling experiences. She believes that dental hygienists unintentionally place limits on what they can accomplish.

Jo-Anne is a mother of four and grandmother of five, is a self-confessed "foodie," and enjoys Dance-Fit exercising, skiing, traveling, and retail therapy! She maintains active registration in her province of Ontario, Canada, and membership in both national and provincial associations.

Her cousin Bonnie taught Jo-Anne a rich life lesson. She had found the secret of life through her journey with cancer. The words found in James Taylor's song "Secret O' Life" carry an underlying message to enjoy the passage of time and make every day count!

For more information on Jo-Anne or her programs contact her at [email protected]

Thought for the month:
Tragedy is an initiation not of human beings but of action, life, happiness, and unhappiness. -- Aristotle

The INeedCE course for February is "How to Select the Best Laser for YOUR Practice." RDH readers will receive a 50% discount through March 15, 2014 if code NFEB14 is used. Regular price $49. $24.50 after discount.

The description of the course is:
The purchase of capital equipment must be guided by sound financial decisions. The purchase of a high-tech device, such as a dental laser, must also be guided by intelligent decision-making. Very often dentists buy lasers without understanding the costs to the practice of such a purchase. While dentists may be able to determine which wavelength will work well in their practices, such criteria as operating costs vs. purchase price, the type of delivery system, the importance of training, and much more must be evaluated before the wrong purchase is made for the practice. Lasers can be game-changing devices for a practice -- but only if the right laser for that practice is selected.

ANN-MARIE C. DEPALMA, RDH, MEd, FADIA, FAADH, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene and the Association of Dental Implant Auxiliaries, as well as a continuous member of ADHA. She presents continuing education programs for dental team members on a variety of topics. Ann-Marie is collaborating with several authors on various books for dental hygiene and can be reached at [email protected].

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