The first line of defense in diagnosing oral cancer is in the general dentist’s office.
About 60% of adults visit a dentist per year. During these emergency and regular care
visits, dentists and dental hygienists routinely use visual examinations and other
screening tools to evaluate changes in the mouth and search for signs of cancer growths.
I tell my patients, if we don’t grab your tongue to check the sides and underneath, say Ah,
then examine back in the mouth and throat who would do it?
In the U.S. 115 cases of oral cancers are diagnosed each day. Does this mean the
occurrence of oral cancer is on the rise or that dentists are diagnosing more cases at
earlier, more treatable stages? The answer to both is true.
If you are a smoker you should be concerned about the effects smoking has on your
Oral cancers accounted for over 8,500 deaths in the United States last year (1% of all
cancer deaths). Persons with a previous history of oral cancer and combination tobacco
and heavy alcohol users over the age of forty are at the highest risk. However, oral cancer
is universally found in persons of all ages and backgrounds. UV exposure and sun
damage and HPV16 (virus) are creating the fastest growing segment of young, healthy,
non-smoking oral cancer patients.
Every person should undergo routine visual oral cancer screenings.
In this country, the responsibility of oral cancer screening has fallen on general dentists.
Every dental patient should undergo an oral cancer exam at every dental examination
visit, consisting of a routine visual screening and palpation of high risk areas.
If you do not see a dentist regularly, where are you getting your oral cancer screenings?
What does oral cancer look like? Where does it occur?
Judgment needs to be made on white patches, red areas, non-healing ulcers and abrasions
or any abnormal tissue changes. The highest risk spots are on the tongue, the floor of the
mouth, lower lip and soft palate region.
The only way to be 100% sure a lesion is benign or cancer is to biopsy the lesion (remove
tissue to send to the pathology lab for the pathologist to check for atypical cells). Any
sores that do not heal in two weeks need to be addressed.
A biopsy involves one of the different methods existing to obtain the tissue sample for
the lab. Tissue biopsy is the “gold-standard” in diagnosing benign or cancerous tissue
lesions. These samples can be obtained using soft-tissue lasers, scalpels or punches,
utilizing local anesthetics.
The earlier a cancerous lesion can be detected, the earlier it can be treated. Earlier
treatment relates to a higher cancer victim survival rate. The general dentist is on the
front line in detecting diseases that show up in the mouth before they move on to the rest
of the body.
This is one of the important reasons to always have regular dental check-ups.