Orlando Dentist

Oral cancer screenings by dentists play a vital role in protecting people against a disease that’s one of the deadliest types of cancer-killing thousands in the U.S. every year.

Without oral cancer screening, early stages of the disease may go unnoticed, allowing it to spread, which significantly lessens the possibility of successful treatment.

Oral cancer refers to mutations in the DNA of cells in your mouth. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the main component of chromosomes and contains your genetic code.

These cell mutations can grow and divide to form a tumor that can spread within the mouth, neck, and head, and to other parts of the body.

What is Oral Cancer Screening?

Mouth cancer is frequently diagnosed by dentists, and oral cancer screening may be part of routine dental exams.

Oral cancer screening can detect signs of the disease before any symptoms are obvious. Early diagnosis enables prompt treatment with a higher likelihood of a successful outcome – by the time a patient notices any symptoms, the cancer may have already started to spread.

During oral cancer screening, your dentist will examine your entire mouth – not just your teeth – to detect any precancerous or cancerous conditions. They’ll look for issues such as:

  • An abnormal bite.
  • White patches on the tongue or gums.
  • Indications of unexplained bleeding.
  • Blocked salivary glands.
  • Sores or ulcers that show no sign of healing.

Oral cancer screening is often carried out with the aid of hi-tech equipment such as an ultraviolet light to reveal problems not visible to the naked eye.

If your dentist finds a suspicious area of tissue, they may remove a sample and send it for a biopsy.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer generally starts in the thin cells lining the inside of the mouth and the lips and is known as squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). The disease can also start in the gums, tongue, or the floor or roof of the mouth.

When symptoms of oral cancer eventually become apparent, you may experience:

  • Pain in the tongue, jaw, throat, or ears.
  • Difficulty eating.
  • Pain when swallowing.
  • Sore throat.
  • Bleeding in the mouth.
  • A sore that doesn't heal.
  • Facial numbness.
  • Thickening of the lining of the mouth.
  • Loose teeth or dentures.

Another indication of oral cancer may be weight loss – due to pain in the mouth or difficulty in eating and swallowing.

It’s worth noting that symptoms like the above don’t necessarily indicate cancer, and doctors will investigate more common causes for these problems, such as infection.

Who Should Get Oral Cancer Screening and When?

People most at risk of oral cancer are those over 40, and it’s more prevalent in men. The risk increases as you get older and many cases are diagnosed when people are in their 60s.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, 50,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oral cancer or oropharyngeal cancer every year. Oropharyngeal cancer affects the middle section of the throat, including the base of the tongue. These cancers kill nearly 10,000 a year – higher than the fatality rate of many other types of cancers.

In 2017, an estimated 51,540 adults in the U.S. were diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The average age of those diagnosed was 62, and more than 70 percent were men.

The National Cancer Institute says cancer screenings should take place before symptoms are apparent, and the Oral Cancer Foundation recommends everyone aged 18-plus should get an annual oral cancer screening.

Research has indicated a slight increase in the risk of oral cancer if you have a close relative who has had the disease. Individuals who have previously had oral cancer are also at greater risk of developing the condition again.

Other potential risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use.
  • Heavy drinking.
  • A diet rich in fried food and red meat.
  • Excessive exposure of your lips to the sun.
  • Weak immune system.
  • The sexually-transmitted human papillomavirus virus (HPV).
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – when stomach acid gets into the gullet.
  • Contact with chemical hazards such as asbestos, formaldehyde, or sulfuric acid.

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) says broken or jagged teeth may increase the likelihood of oral cancer, and it encourages people to maintain a good routine of oral hygiene to reduce this risk.

What Happens If I’m Diagnosed with Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is particularly dangerous because the early stages may be free from pain or other symptoms. It also carries a high risk of spreading tumors.

In fact, oral cancer is often diagnosed only when it’s spread elsewhere – usually through the lymph nodes in the neck. Prognosis at this stage is far worse than if the condition is detected in the mouth.

If spotted early, however, oral cancer can be cured by radiation therapy or surgery, and survival rates are good.

Radiation treatment can be particularly effective in cases of oral cancer, targeting the diseased cells with high-energy X-rays or radiation particles.

Surgery involves removing the tumor and some of the surrounding healthy tissue. Minor surgery is usually sufficient to deal with a small tumor but larger ones may require removal of part of the jaw bone or tongue.

Protecting Yourself Against Oral Cancer

Your dentist is your first line of defense against oral cancer.

The most common symptoms of the disease are continual pain in the mouth and ulcers that don’t heal. You may also have problems eating or swallowing, or notice lesions or lumps in your mouth. In cases like these, tell your dentist as soon as possible.

The importance of oral cancer screening is underpinned by statistics such as:

  • When diagnosed early, the five-year survival rate for oral cancer is more than 80 percent.
  • Most oral cancers aren’t diagnosed until the late stages of the disease – when the five-year survival rate drops to around 50 percent.
  • According to the American Cancer Society, some people who get oral cancer have few or no recognized risk factors.