Think back to your most recent dental appointment. Did your dentist check you for oral cancer?
If the answer is “no” or you don’t remember, you’re not alone. According to a recent survey by Vigilant Biosciences, 63% said as much. Yet more than 80% would like oral cancer screening to be a part of every dental exam.
An oral cancer exam is quick, painless and easy – and a routine part of our patient exams.
Unfortunately, this is not the norm. As a 2009 paper in the Journal of the California Dental Association noted, while “most dentists claim to perform an oral cancer examination on their patients,” the lack of progress in early diagnosis suggests otherwise.
Early diagnosis is critical, for the more advanced the cancer, the harder it is to treat successfully. “The death rate for oral cancer,” notes the Oral Cancer Foundation,
is higher than that of cancers which we hear about routinely such as cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, laryngeal cancer, cancer of the testes, and endocrine system cancers such as thyroid, or skin cancer (malignant melanoma). If you expand the definition of oral and oropharyngeal cancers to include cancer of the larynx, the numbers of diagnosed cases grow to approximately 54,000 individuals, and 13,500 deaths per year in the U.S. alone.
If caught early, on the other hand, oral cancer is often readily treatable. Hence, routine screenings.
The basic physical exam involves inspecting the mouth, lips, gums, tongue, tonsils and other soft tissues, looking for any lesions or other abnormalities. It includes palpating (lightly touching or pushing against) the neck and lymph nodes. Autofluorescence imaging may also be used to detect problems. If any are found, further testing – such as the OralCDx brush test – can be done to make a more definite diagnosis.
But you don’t need to wait until your next dental appointment. You can do a self-exam at home. If you notice anything strange, arrange to have your dentist evaluate the situation. Common symptoms of oral cancer include
- Persistent mouth sores.
- Mouth or ear pain.
- Chronic hoarseness.
- A non-tender lump on the neck.
- Abnormal swallowing.
- A peculiar sore throat.
While anyone can develop oral cancer, some people are at greater risk than others. Historically, the most at-risk groups have been older smokers and heavy drinkers, but in recent years, more cases have involved younger adults infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) – the same sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer. Unfortunately, HPV related oral cancers are often found in the back of the mouth, making them that much harder to see – and thus, harder to discover in their earliest stages.
What can you do to reduce your risk of developing oral cancer? Three big things in addition to the usual litany of healthful habits (i.e., proper diet, exercise, enough sleep, et al):
- If you smoke or chew tobacco – or if you vape – stop.
- If you use alcohol, do so in moderation.
- If you are sexually active, practice safer sex.
And, once again, keep a close eye on your body. You’re the sole expert in how you look and feel – how things are supposed to be and when something isn’t right. Paying attention can make a huge difference in catching any problems early.