In 2019, it’s estimated that about 53,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer. And more than 10,000 people diagnosed with one of these cancers will die.
Scheduling and going to your biannual cleaning is more important than just ensuring your teeth are clean—it also provides your dentist the opportunity to provide a painless and potentially life–saving oral cancer screening.
This video by the American College of Prosthodontists shows how your dentist will perform an exam and can help remove any fear or apprehension you have facing an oral cancer screening. It’s important to educate yourself on the risk factors and be aware of any changes you see or feel so you can schedule an examine with your medical provider.
Who is most at risk for oral cancer?
Men are twice as likely as women to be diagnosed with oral cancer. And most diagnoses occur in those over 40, with the average age being 62.
While cancer can affect anyone at any time, there are certain lifestyle choices that lead to a higher rate of risk. For one, tobacco users of any kind are at a higher risk of developing oral cancer. In combination with alcohol, the prevalence rate increases exponentially. Individuals exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV), specifically HPV type 16, also have a higher chance or being diagnosed with oral cancer. And finally, excessive sun exposure can cause cancer of the lips, which is another form of oral cancer.
Diagnosing oral cancer
One of the most devastating aspects of oral cancer is that its primary symptoms can mirror a number of other illnesses. Subsequently, symptoms can be ignored or missed, or only caught when it metastasizes to other organs. This leads to many late–stage discoveries and a particularly high death rate associated with all types of oral cancer.
Since catching oral cancer can be difficult, it’s important that you visit your dentist regularly so that oral cancer screenings can occur.
What does the exam entail?
Oral cancer screenings are quick and painless—so much so that patients rarely realize they’re happening during their regular exams.
During the screening, your dentist will look inside your mouth to check for red or white patches or mouth sores. Using gloved hands, your dentist will also feel the tissues in your mouth to check for lumps or other abnormalities.
In addition to the manual exam, your dentist may recommend other using a special mouthwash that includes blue dye. This dye highlights abnormal cells and makes them easier to locate with the naked eye.
If there is anything that is concerning found, your dentist may recommend a biopsy to remove a sample of cells for laboratory testing to determine whether cancer cells are present. Your dentist may perform the biopsy, or you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in oral cancer diagnosis and treatment.
When oral cancer is caught early, radiation or chemotherapy in combination with surgery is the most common treatment plan. If the cancer is detected later, radiation in combination with chemotherapy is commonly prescribed. Like many other types of cancers, the treatment is dependent on your overall health and the progression of the disease.
Throughout the course of treatment, it’s important that your cancer team stay in contact with your dentist. Treatments can also cause damage to the teeth, so continuing your bi-annual visits is also extremely important.