Routine visits to the dentist can mean more than just cleaning and hoping you have no cavities. They can also provide a potentially life-saving screening for oral cancer. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that over 8,000 people die from oral cancer each year, so it's important to detect the disease early.
What is Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer, as its name suggests, is cancer occurring in the mouth or throat (the oral cavity or the pharynx, in technical terms). Lesions or growths may form on the lips, gums, tongue or the inside of the mouth. Risk factors for getting oral cancer include such things as smoking or using tobacco products, alcohol consumption, sun exposure to the skin or testing positive for the human papillomavirus (HPV).
How is it Detected?
If you have any of the higher risk factors, a dentist like Richard L. Myers, DDS, may recommend a routine screening during your visits. Screening is simple and pain-free. It involves talking about some overall symptoms of potential mouth problems, including weight change or fatigue.
Then, the dentist will examine the lips to look for signs of lesions or dark spots that may be caused by too much sun exposure. The dentist may then make a visual examination of your entire facial area to look for any abnormalities, following up by gently touching the bones and soft areas of the head and neck to feel for any masses. She may even use a lighted tool to look up the nasal cavity for abnormal growths as well.
Finally, the dentist will use a light to examine the inside of your mouth and gums thoroughly. Drying mucus-covered surfaces such as the insides of cheeks can help her detect lesions. Such lesions are usually red or white and may or may not be causing discomfort at early stages.
If your dentist finds any lesions that are suspect, she may take a sample of the tissue involved and send it to a lab for a biopsy. A biopsy can determine if any of the cells tested are cancerous or precancerous, or if they are benign growths. If the biopsy does indicate any cancerous cells, further tests may include using a scope to look down the throat for additional signs of cancer or taking images (such as X-rays, CT scans or MRI scans) to see how far any cancer has spread. Surgery to remove the affected tissue may be the next step.
Talk With Your Dentist
If you have any concerns about oral cancer – including any of the above risk factors – it's a good time to discuss the matter with your dentist. She can help you understand what to look for yourself and schedule an exam or make such an exam part of your regular dental care. And by doing so, you can rest easy both in and out of the dental chair.