Over 40,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral and throat cancers every year. The earlier these cancers are detected the longer the survival rate. That is why dentists do oral cancer screenings when they do a routine dental exam. It can save your life.
Where does oral cancer hit and what are the symptoms?
When doctors talk about cancers, they are talking about any cancerous growths that start in the oral cavity. This area includes the lips, cheek lining, gums, the part of the tongue within the mouth, the roof of the mouth (palate) and the floor of the mouth under the tongue.
Oral cancer presents in a number of ways. The dentist will be looking for things like:
- An oral sore that does not heal
- Pain or tenderness in the mouth or lips
- Red or white patches
- A lump or thickening in the mouth
- A change in the way the alignment of the teeth
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
What does the dentist do during the exam?
Before the exam, the dentist will talk with you about your health history and any factors that might increase the chances of developing mouth cancer. During the exam, the dentist is going to visually check the inside of your mouth and lips. He will also palpitate the jaw to feel if there are any unusual growths or areas of tenderness.
During oral cancer screenings, the dentist may perform other tests as well. One test involves rinsing the mouth with a special blue dye. The dye causes abnormal cells to turn blue. Another test involves using a special light during the exam. Normal tissue appears dark, while abnormal tissue can appear white.
If the dentist detects any areas of concerns, he will recommend that you follow-up with your regular physician.
What factors contribute to oral cancer?
People most at risk for oral cancers are those who smoke and those over the age of 50. Other factors that contribute to these kinds of cancers include heavy alcohol use and, for cancers of the lips, a history of significant sun exposure.
Recently, the human papilloma virus (HPV) has been found to cause certain kinds of cancers found in the mouth and throat. In fact, the HPV virus is the main cause of the rising incidents of non-smoking related oral cancers.
It is important to talk with the dentist about whether oral cancer screenings are something you need. While they cannot detect all cancers, these screenings can detect cancer and precancerous growths early which allows for early treatment.