MANATEE -- With his 150-watt smile, wavy hair and his frame chiseled by logging 100 miles per week on a bicycle, Bradenton dentist Dr. Christopher R. Stock looks a bit like a young Harrison Ford, the star of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the early "Star Wars" movies.
Stock laughs at that suggestion and says he is way too reserved to ever be on a stage or in front of a camera.
But his assistant at Palms Dental, Ronda Harvey, who has worked with Stock for two years at 2006 Manatee Ave. W., says Stock uses his charm and wit to urge patients to give up their chewing tobacco or smoking due to the dangers of both.
"He doesn't do it in a harsh way, but he gets his point across," Harvey said of the dentist who rides with The Village Idiots cycling team in Lakewood Ranch.
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Although only a small percentage of his patients still use chewing tobacco, about 20 percent still smoke, Stock said.
"I tell my patients that use of tobacco can lead to a very high risk of gum disease and a lifetime of dental health issues, which can sometimes be uncomfortable to go through and expensive," Stock said. "Tobacco contains so many toxins that affect gum tissue."
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month and the use of chewing tobacco, often called "dipping," concerns Stock and other area dentists because it can lead to cancer, removal of part of the jaw or even death.
Chewing tobacco users put a "chaw" of tobacco between their lip and gum and the nicotine is absorbed through the lining of the mouth.
"Some users report that it makes them relax, but it's actually more of a stimulant," said Dr. Amrita Marajh, pronounced "mirage," a dentist with Great Expressions Dental Centers, which has an office in Lakewood Ranch at 11215 State Road 70 E., and about 249 other offices across the United States. Marajh, 29, practices at GEDC's office in Belleair Bluffs, in Pinellas County. She is highly informed on chewing tobacco's negative impacts.
"Three out of four people who use chewing tobacco present pre-cancerous lesions in their mouths," said Marajh, who was born in Trinidad and attended the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University in South Florida.
"There is a chemical called nitro samines that is specific to smokeless tobacco and it's one of the more harmful chemicals respon
sible for oral cancer," Marajh added.
Marajh said she is often asked if chewing is safer than smoking because smoking carries a known risk of lung cancer.
"We say, 'No, with chewing tobacco you can contract cancer of the throat, larynx, esophagus and vocal chords,' " Marajh said.
Besides the cancer risk, using smokeless tobacco can damage the gums, Marajh said.
"Gum tissue is very delicate," Marajh said. "Chewing tobacco can lead to irritation and, eventually, receding gums and bone loss. And when you lose gum support, it leads to bone loss and tooth loss."
Like Stock, Marajh tries to get the message across with tact.
"I say in a nice way, 'This is where you are right now. But to avoid you having to see me, I can let you know that 75 percent of cancers we find in the head and neck are caused by alcohol and tobacco. I'm here to advise you so you can make an informed decision.' "
Marajh's father, Dave, gave up smoking on her 18th birthday, 11 years ago.
"He's doing a lot better," Marajh said. "The body can repair some of tobacco's damage when you quit."
Stock said he is highly concerned for males in their 20s, the one demographic that he believes still avidly supports chewing tobacco.
"I haven't seen many cases of oral cancer from use of chewing tobacco recently because I think people are getting more informed," said Stock, who has been in practice for 15 years, including three in Sarasota and 12 at Palms Dental. "But what concerns me is that 50 percent of all adults don't see a dentist. So we don't know if there are cases out there that have been seen."
Stock advises people to be sure to take a few minutes each month for a self-exam.
People should see if they can see or feel anything suspicious including lumps, bumps or tender areas.
"We look for any white, red or grey patches on the tongue or in the mouth," Stock said.
The scale, perhaps, began tipping against dipping after the 2014 death of former San Diego Padre Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn who contracted salivary gland cancer and attributed it to his habit of using chewing tobacco. He was 54.
A dentist is the first line of defense in identifying dental health problems that may be associated with oral cancer, said Stock, who screens all of his patients for oral cancer. A screening consists of an examination of the face, neck, lip and mouth for signs of cancer, as well as checking the tongue for any lesions or discolorations.
Early indicators of oral cancer include red or white discolorations of the soft tissues of the mouth, any sore that does not heal within 14 days and hoarseness which lasts for a prolonged period of time, said Dr. Vincent Lizzio also with Great Expressions Dental Centers.
Advanced indicators of oral cancer include a sensation that something is stuck in your throat, numbness in the oral region, difficulty in moving the jaw or tongue, difficulty in swallowing, ear pain in one side only, or a lump that develops in the mouth or on the neck, Lizzio said.
"While oral cancer can be discovered through oral health screenings, death rates associated with the disease are historically high because the cancer continues to be discovered late in its development due to a lack of visual evidence," Lizzio said.
To help reduce the number of oral cancer related deaths, GEDC includes oral cancer screenings as part of every dental exam, Lizzio said.
"As we've seen, oral cancer can be life-threatening and can easily go unnoticed in its early stages," Lizzio said. "We want everyone to know the importance of being proactive about the prevention of oral cancer and work to detect signs in the early stages of development. That's why at every visit we perform visual cancer screenings on all of our patients as part of our standard practice."
To get an oral cancer exam by Dr. Stock at Palms Dental call 941-748-7017. The website is palmsdental.com.
A more thorough exam for oral cancer called "Vizilite," will be offered for $39 at Great Expressions Dental Centers in April, Lizzio said.
The Vizilite enhances the visual exam to find lesions at an earlier stage, Lizzio said. To contact GEDC's Lakewood Ranch office: 941-757-0490 or greatexpressions.com.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.