Oral cancer is the 13th most commonly diagnosed cancer, according to the Dental Association. It can develop in any part of the mouth, internal or external – lips, tongue, cheeks, floor and roof of the mouth, sinuses, and throat. This is why routine checkups are so important. Routine checkups allow our dentist to thoroughly examine your mouth for early signs of development. While oral cancer is always a concern, you should know that it is rare. Unless you are actively using tobacco products, or have a gene pool that has a history of developing it, there is a very little chance you will experience anything close to oral cancer in your lifetime. However, it is never a bad idea to get your concerns checked at your next dental visit to our office. An oral cancer screening is a routine examination that is done at each dental visit. We educate our patients about the importance of following up with their medical doctor for any visual lesions, lumps, or bumps that may be observed during the screening.
The first step in screening for oral cancer is the completion of your dental and medical history, which includes a review of:
- General health history, including a list of current medications and allergies.
- Oral and lifestyle habits, with reference to quantity, frequency, and duration of tobacco use and alcohol consumption.
- Symptoms of oral pain or discomfort.
If anything is concerning, we may perform an extraoral and intraoral examination, where we:
- Inspect your head and neck for asymmetry, tenderness, or swelling.
- Palpate the submandibular, neck, and supraclavicular regions for lymph nodes, paying close attention to size, number, tenderness, and mobility.
- Inspect and palpate the lips and perioral tissues for abnormalities.
- Systematically inspect and palpate all oral soft tissues, paying close attention to the high-risk sites for the development of oral cancer including the lateral and ventral aspects of the tongue, floor of the mouth, and the soft palate complex.
Symptoms of Oral Cancer
It is important to note that while these symptoms may be caused by other, less serious oral health issues, they should still be checked by our office at your next routine visit. Common symptoms include, red or white spots or sores anywhere in the oral cavity, a sore that bleeds easily or does not heal, a lump, thickening, or rough spot, pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in your mouth or on your lips, or difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving your jaw or tongue. There are many other symptoms to lookout for, so it is always best to call us for an appointment if you experience or see anything alarming.
Oral cancer screenings involve an examination of the oral cavity as a whole – not just your teeth. This helps detect cancerous and pre-cancerous conditions. Besides a visual and physical examination of your mouth, our dentist may also use a VELscope. This scope helps us discover oral mucosal abnormalities that may otherwise have gone overlooked.
If the early stages of oral cancer are detected, it is typically treated with surgery or radiation. Advanced cases will combine surgery and radiation as the most common treatment. In the late stages, radiation and chemotherapy are the usual combination, with or without surgery.
With all cancers, the best way to prevent oral cancer starts with you – avoid all tobacco products, only drink alcohol in moderation, maintain a healthy and balanced diet, and limit your exposure to the sun (this is significantly more important than sunblock, because sunblock can only be as effective as your ability to properly apply it, while limited exposure always works best).