November 12, 2021

Dental visit speeds cancer diagnosis and treatment

A reminder to complete a routine mammogram — and early detection — helped one Kaiser Permanente member overcome breast cancer.

Lifelong Kaiser Permanente member Kat Riley (right), with her dentist, Rie Kimura, DMD.

Like many people, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Kat Riley put off going to the dentist. First it was the government-mandated shutdown in Oregon. Then, the retiree and lifelong Kaiser Permanente member just wasn’t comfortable going to many public places.

“I knew my teeth needed cleaning, but I was really thinking it wasn’t the time because of COVID,” said the fifth-generation Oregonian. “I just kept putting it off.”

Until late 2020. And that visit to the Kaiser Permanente Tigard Dental Office began a 4-month cancer journey Riley had no idea she’d be on.

Dental visits are a key touchpoint

Kaiser Permanente’s integrated model enables our dental teams to provide members with an after-visit summary that includes reminders for preventive health screenings and other recommended appointments. Because members generally see the dentist more often than they see their doctor, dental visits are a key touchpoint for reminders about their overall health.

It was that after-visit summary that informed Riley she was past due for a mammogram. She might have put that off, too, had it not been for a bit of reinforcement.

“My dental hygienist not only handed me the visit paperwork, she encouraged me and talked about the importance of scheduling a mammogram and a vaccine I was due for,” said Riley. “She was right. I couldn’t remember when I had my last mammogram, so I went home and made both appointments right away.”

A highly personal reason for screenings

Riley’s dental hygienist, Laura Hughes, has a highly personal reason for reminding patients to get their screenings. Her younger brother, who had medical issues that could have been detected by screenings and prevention in early stages, recently passed away.

“There is a good chance that my brother’s outcome could have been very different had he had the proper screenings,” said Hughes.

“My patients know when they leave my chair, if they have screenings, vaccines — anything that is due — I will do everything I can to encourage them to get their test done to close their care gaps,” said Hughes. “They have nothing to lose, and, as I well know, everything to gain.”

Reminder leads to discovery of a tumor

Riley had a routine mammogram, then an ultrasound and biopsy, which confirmed a cancerous tumor less than one centimeter in size.

She’d always walked in cancer events in support of research and awareness. But now cancer was in her. Her life became a whirlwind.

Four months after that dental checkup led her to schedule an overdue breast cancer screening, the tumor was gone — with less than a 1% chance of returning — and Riley has been 100% back to an active retirement. She recently celebrated her first cancer-free year with her dental team.

“I feel so blessed. If I hadn’t gone to the dental office when I did, who knows what would have happened or where it would have spread to?” Riley said. “It was absolutely the right timing.”