Oral Cancer Screening

What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer Screenings: Importance & Risk Factors

Dentist holding a cancer ribbon.When it comes to visiting the dentist on a regular basis, we do so because we want to make sure that our teeth and gums are healthy. But there is another reason why you want to routinely visit your dentist, and that is for oral cancer screenings. These examinations take just a few minutes to complete and are designed to catch the early onset of oral cancer as well as determining how likely you may be at risk.

Why Are Oral Screenings Important?

These examinations are extremely important because if the cancer is caught early enough, it can be treated successfully. According to the American Cancer Society, the relative 5-year survival rate is between 70-90% which is solely based on localized cancer regions. When detected early, oral cancer can be treated and removed, increasing survival chances.

How is Oral Cancer Diagnosed?

A dentist will look for precancerous lesions or abnormal tissue within the oral cavity, nose, lips, neck, and tongue. An oral abnormality can be anything from asymmetry in the mouth to a sore area or lesion, to a persistent sore throat that won’t go away. Generally, though, oral cancer is a lump, swollen lymph node, or immobile tissue that is characterized by painful or non-painful inflammation.  A dentist may look for any of the following:

  • Unexplained ear pain or bleeding in the mouth
  • Loose teeth without reasonable explanation (old age, sports injury)
  • Difficulty articulating speech
  • Growing/Changing red and white lesions
  • Jaw or dental pain

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What Are the Risk Factors in Developing Oral Cancer?

There are many risk factors associated with developing oral cancer. Those who are over the age of forty, are male, and have an unhealthy diet in combination with tobacco and alcohol use, are at greater risk. Those who have the human papillomavirus and get prolonged sun exposure are also at risk.

What to Expect With an Oral Cancer Screening?

Since oral cancer screening is performed during your routine dental appointment, you do not need to do anything special to prepare. Simply show up, and either ask about getting a cancer screening done or discuss this prior to your appointment.  In terms of what to expect, your dentist will look over the inside of your mouth for any red and white patches or mouth sores, as well as any swelling, discoloration, or bumps.

A physical examination will also be done of your jaw, chin, head, cheeks, neck, and mouth. Using gloved hands, the dentist will feel inside your mouth for any immobile tissue, unusual masses, or other abnormalities.  If you wear dentures, of any kind, your dentist will ask you to remove them prior to the oral screening.

Will You Be Asked to Do Anything?

This is dependent on whether your dentist wants to use specialized tests during the oral screening process. Your dentist may ask you to rinse your mouth with a blue dye before the exam, as abnormal cells will show up under it or he/she may shine a light in your mouth to look for white abnormal tissue.

What If Oral Cancer is Found?

If your dentist does come across any precancerous lesions or abnormalities, your dentist may do one of two things. Either they may schedule you for a follow-up visit to see if the abnormality is still present and to note whether it has changed at all or, they may do a biopsy on the abnormality.  With a biopsy, your dentist will take a sample of the abnormality and send it off to a laboratory for testing or have a specialist perform the biopsy. Once the results are in, you will be informed as to whether you have oral cancer or not and if you do, be brought in to discuss treatment options.

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