Your family physician manages your overall health and provides annual physicals to help identify possible issues such as cancer. They also help recommend cancer screenings based on your age, such as mammograms and colonoscopies. However, what many patients don’t realize is that it is actually their dentist who screens for cancers of the mouth, lips, tongue and throat. Here we explain how your dentist helps you with oral cancer screening.
Why Is Oral Cancer Screening Important?
While you might feel oral cancer screening isn’t required for everyone, it is important to keep in mind an estimated 7,400 Canadians will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2021, with 2,100 losing their lives from the disease. As mentioned, since oral cancer is not something tracked by your general practitioner, it is important to attend your regular dental checkups to watch for signs and symptoms of the disease. Because it is a potentially aggressive form of cancer, it can spread quickly. Therefore early detection is very important.
Is Oral Cancer Just In The Mouth?
No. Although many forms of oral cancer are created in the cells of the mouth, it can also occur in the following areas:
- Soft palate
- Floor of the mouth
- Inner lining of the cheeks
- Upper or lower jawbone
- Hard palate
- Alveolar ridge where the teeth sockets are located
Your dentist checks all of these areas during your oral cancer screening.
How Does Oral Cancer Occur?
Oral cancer occurs when the cells in your mouth, neck, tongue, jaw, or throat change. Changes in behaviour of tissue growth can lead to cancerous tumours. As tumours form, they destroy healthy tissue. If not detected, they continue to grow and can spread to other parts of the body. Oral cancer screenings help detect signs of oral cancers before they can spread. Keep in mind, not all lumps or “tumours” are cancerous. However, the key to cancer treatment is noticing cell changes, lumps, and other abnormalities early so treatment can be provided. In some cases, cells are what is considered “pre-cancerous” which means they can be treated before cancer has time to develop.
Can I Recognize Possible Signs And Symptoms Of Oral Cancer?
Yes. There are some common signs and symptoms of oral cancer you should report to your dentist right away including:
- Discolouration or patches appearing in your mouth, on your lips, or on your tongue
- Lumps in the jaw bone or in your mouth
- Mouth tissue texture changes
- Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
- Numbness in the mouth
- Mouth or lip sores and/or patches that are frequent or don’t heal
- Trouble swallowing
- Food tastes different
- Odd sensations in the tongue
While there could be other reasons for these changes, your dentist can rule out the possibility of oral cancer.
What Is Included In An Oral Cancer Screening?
Your dentist will perform a thorough exam, including:
- Checking your mouth for discolouration, patches, or sores
- Checking for lumps or abnormalities in your mouth, cheeks, and tongue
- Checking your throat and neck for lumps
If they find anything they feel is suspicious, they will arrange for further testing.
What Further Tests Might Be Required?
Some of the most common tests to diagnose oral cancer include:
- Use of dyes to help identify abnormal cells in your mouth
- Use of a cancer screening light to look for cell abnormalities
- Booking a follow-up exam to see if abnormal patches heal or change
- Biopsy of lumps
- X-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs
- Brush cytology of oral tissue
Further steps such as referral to a cancer specialist will follow should cancer be confirmed, or if tests are inconclusive.
What Is A Biopsy?
If a legion or lump is discovered a biopsy is required. Biopsies take a sample of the tissue to be examined on a “cellular” level. The test determines if the sample is benign, malignant, or precancerous. Malignancy confirms the presence of cancer.
Who Gets Oral Cancer?
While anyone can get oral cancer, there are a few risk factors, including:
- Use of tobacco products including smoking and chewing
- Regular alcohol consumption
- Performing oral sex
- Prolonged sun exposure
- Unhealthy diet
- A history of leukoplakia
- Being male
- HPV virus
While these factors do not mean you will get oral cancer for sure, a combination of many factors does increase risk.
How Is Oral Cancer Treated?
If you are diagnosed with oral cancer your oncologist will determine the best course of action. This can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and removal of tumours. Many patients undergo a combination of treatments to improve their chances of survival.
Oral Cancer Prevention
There are several ways you can reduce your risk for oral cancer, including:
- Booking your regular dental exams to ensure you have oral cancer screenings
- Not using tobacco products
- Cutting down your alcohol consumption
- Using UV protection
- Improving your diet
- Self-examination for symptoms of oral cancer
- HPV vaccine for females
As with any type of cancer, oral cancer screening is one of the best ways to reduce your risk. Early detection greatly improves outcomes for cancer treatments.
How To Conduct A Self-Examination For Oral Cancer
You can conduct oral cancer self-examinations at home if you feel you are at higher risk with the following steps:
- Check your lips and mouth for signs of discolouration, especially white or red patches
- Check inside your mouth for changes such as discolouration, texture changes such as thickening of the tissue, and sores
- Check your jawline and neck for lumps
- Check your tongue for lumps or discolourations
- Keep an eye on mouth sores that don’t seem to heal or that keep coming back
- Note changes to your sense of taste
If you notice any of the signs, you should contact your dentist right away. They will perform a thorough exam and rule out the possibility of cancer, or arrange for further tests.
It is important to understand your dentist is a crucial member of your health care team. While you might not think you need regular exams due to good oral health, remember that your checkups are the only exam to detect suspicious tissue and lumps that could indicate you have oral cancer. Detection in the early stages ensures you receive treatment quickly.