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 health.
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?
Q: What does oral cancer look like? Where does it occur?
A: 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.
Q: What happens if the dental staff finds a suspicious area?
A: 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.
Q: What does a biopsy involve?
A: Different methods exist to obtain the tissue sample for the lab. The simplest is a Brush Biopsy where a stiff nylon brush is passed and twirled in the suspected site; the obtained cells are fixed on a glass slide and sent to the lab for cytopathologist and computer verification of normal or atypical cells.
Atypical cells would signal the need for an additional biopsy to obtain a larger tissue sample to send to the lab. Tissue biopsy is the “gold-standard” in diagnosing benign or cancerous tissue lesions.
Tissue biopsies 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.