What is an Oral Cancer Screening? Do I need one?

Oral cancer is an epidemic that used to be pretty rare. When we think of cancer in general, cancer of the mouth just isn’t really what comes to mind; we are more concerned about skin, lung, and other cancers that we often hear about. Recently, however, there has been a rise in the incidences seen, especially in younger people. In fact, over 30,000 new cases are diagnosed annually with more than 8,000 resulting in death. But what exactly oral cancer is and how we can prevent it are the questions I want to answer today.

Simply put, oral cancer manifests itself in the mouth in much the same way other cancers do; an uncontrollable cell growth that causes damage to the places around it. The oral cavity includes not just the teeth, but also the tongue, cheek, lips, palate and any soft/hard tissues inside the mouth. The tricky part is that it comes in a variety of forms, some more obvious than others. The old realm of thinking was that it only affected older adults who drank and smoked. While it is true that those habits increase the risk, younger people are being diagnosed every day. Studies show that men are more at risk than women, particularly men over the age of 50. Let’s look at what really puts us at risk though.

Smoking is one of the top risk indicators. Smokers are 6 times more likely than non-smokers to develop some type of oral cancer, not to mention the progression to periodontal disease that smoking also procures. Smokeless tobacco also plays a large role, along with people who drink alcohol heavily. These are some of the top contributing habits, but there are also others, including a familial history of the disease, HPV or lots of sun exposure. Now that we can pinpoint some things that increase your risk, let’s look at what to look out for.

It is so important to be aware of changes and abnormalities in your mouth. Your mouth is different than anyone else’s, and only you and your dentist will be able to gauge what is normal for you. Oral cancer screenings are now a part of most routine cleanings and exams, but it is helpful to be aware of your own mouth and any changes that may occur. Things to look out for are any growths, as in lumps or bumps that have not previously been present. This is especially important if there is a change in color. The most common places to find any sort of irregularity is on the floor of the mouth and the sides of the tongue so be sure to look there. If any sort of question arises as to a sore or problem area, be sure to bring this to your dentist’s attention and he or she may send you to get a biopsy of the area just to be sure. In these situations, there are ways to treat the cancers but early detection is key!

Given what to look for and ways to prevent cancer, I hope you can feel better about your own health. While oral cancer doesn’t get a lot of publicity, it is certainly an upcoming threat and something we need all be aware of. With 5 year survival rates of only about 50%, our job as dentists is to educate our patients for what is normal and what is not and to guide you in the right direction. All that being said, be aware of your mouth just like you would any other part of the body; only you know what’s normal and what’s not. And if there is ever a question, don’t hesitate to visit your dentist! You and your mouth are worth it!