Dentists Play Key Role in Detecting Oral Cancer

Are you aware that you dentists performs a thorough screening for oral cancer during each check-up?  You may not be, as most parts of the exam are done unobtrusively by looking at you and listening to you speak as you talk.  In addition to observing how you speak, your dentist will assess the appearance of the skin on your face, head, and neck; hearing ability; how you move your tongue; and swallowing ability.

Your dentist will then examine the inside of your mouth, under your tongue, the inside of your cheeks, and the roof of your mouth. You may be asked questions about your balance, how much you smoke and drink alcohol, and how much time you spend in the sun.  Finally, some dentists will examine the inside of your nose and ears with a special light, just like your doctor does.

An oral cancer screening is an important part of any dental visit, because oral cancer is often undetected in the early stages, and can quickly spread to the head and neck.  Head and neck cancer also easily spreads to the oral cavity, so dentists can also spot potential early head and neck cancer.  Because 75%  of all head and neck cancer originate in the mouth, early detection and treatment of oral cancer also prevents oral cancer from spreading to other areas.

Early detection in oral, head, and neck cancer is the key to successful treatment and recovery.  Every year, over 43,000 cases of oral squamous cell carcinoma are diagnosed, and cause close to   8,000  deaths per year.  Advanced oral cancer is extremely difficult to treat.  Despite breakthrough advances in modes of cancer treatment, the five-year survival rate for oral, head and neck cancer has remained at less than 60% .  A large percentage of the 5 year survivors experience a greatly diminished quality of life.  They have severe difficulty speaking, eating, breathing and swallowing, resulting in a lack of social, recreational, and earning opportunities.

The risk factors for developing oral cancer are tobacco use, alcohol abuse, sun exposure, being male, being over 40 years old, and having a history of any cancer.  The symptoms of oral cancer are red or white patches in any part of your mouth, a sore that doesn’t heal, and any new lump or rough patch in or around your mouth.  If you notice ill-fitting or painful dentures, ear pain that doesn’t resolve or is not accompanied by hearing loss, or swollen lymph nodes in your neck, contact your dentist immediately.  Many times, these symptoms indicate a benign condition-your dentist will know if there is a reason to be concerned.

The only way to determine if you have oral, head, or neck cancer is by undergoing a biopsy.  A biopsy is a procedure where a small part of the suspected cancer is removed and sent to a pathologist to evaluate.  Many cancers begin as pre-cancerous lesions.  Successfully removing a pre-cancerous lesion is much easier to accomplish that treating late-stage cancer.  Working with you dentist in detecting and removing pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions gives you the best chance of a healthy and happy life.