When to Get Screened for Oral Cancer

April is oral cancer awareness month. During this month, it's important to help educate patients about oral cancer, its risk factors, and steps that can be taken to help protect yourself from oral cancer. 

What is Oral Cancer?

The term oral cancer can be used to refer to cancers that affect any anatomical parts in or around the mouth and oral cavity including cancers of the:

  • Lips (outer or inner parts)
  • Gums
  • Teeth
  • Tongue
  • Hard palate (roof of the mouth)
  • Soft palate (back of the mouth)
  • Floor of the mouth (beneath the tongue)
  • Buccal mucosa (inner lining of the cheeks and lips)
  • Retromolar trigone (tissues behind the third molars)
  • Salivary glands

Other types of cancer can affect areas adjacent to the mouth such as the throat, jaw, neck, and maxillofacial anatomy. 

What Is Oral Cancer Screening?

Oral cancer screening is the process of screening a person for signs, symptoms, or abnormalities that could be an indication of the presence of cancerous cells on the lips or within the oral cavity. 

An oral cancer screening is a fairly simple procedure that involves a visual examination that is sometimes assisted by a special kind of light that is used to illuminate abnormalities in the darkness of the oral cavity. It can also involve the physical palpation of the person's soft tissues in and around the mouth, cheeks, jaw, and neck. This helps a healthcare provider to feel any lumps, bumps, or textural changes that might not be readily visible. 

When Should You Be Screened for Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer accounts for about 3% or roughly 54,000 of all annual cancer diagnoses in the United States, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Although oral cancer isn't that uncommon, there is no officially recommended screening regimen for oral cancer like those that exist for other types of cancer such as breast cancer or colon cancer.

Despite the lack of an official screening schedule, most healthcare professionals will recommend that individuals start having annual oral cancer screenings starting around age 20. 

As is the case with most types of cancer, early detection and treatment are key to achieving successful treatment outcomes. So, the sooner signs of oral cancer are detected in a screening appointment, the sooner a person can get a diagnosis and begin treatment. 

3 Times When You Should Get Screened for Oral Cancer

1. You Notice Unexplained Changes in Your Mouth

As oral cancer develops, it can cause some unexplained changes in your mouth that may lead to the following signs and symptoms:

  • A sore, spot, ulcer, or lesion that does not heal
  • White, red, or white-and-red patch on the soft tissue of the mouth
  • Thickening or a lump on the mouth, gums, lips, or neck
  • A change in the texture of the soft tissue in your mouth (such as a patch that feels rough or different)
  • Unexplained oral bleeding
  • Numbness or pain in or around the mouth
  • Loose teeth or a change in bite
  • Dentures that no longer fit comfortably
  • Difficulty swallowing, chewing, or moving your tongue or jaw
  • The feeling of something caught in your throat
  • Sore throat
  • Swelling in the neck, jaw, or face
  • Voice changes
  • Unexplained weight loss

If you notice or experience any of these signs or symptoms or other explained changes in or around your mouth, we encourage you to schedule an examination with a doctor or a dentist right away. 

2. You're in a High-Risk Category for Developing Oral Cancer

Certain risk factors can put an individual at an increased risk of developing oral cancer. If any of these apply to you, then you should be regularly screened for oral cancer. 

Risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use of any kind
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Regular use of a mouthwash that contains alcohol (or other regular oral alcohol exposure)
  • Sun exposure, not wearing sunscreen, and sunburn
  • Positive diagnosis of human papillomavirus (HPV)

3. You're Already Having a Routine Dental Examination

Many dentists automatically perform oral cancer screenings with routine dental examinations. At least once a year you should receive an advanced oral cancer screening which may include the use of a special light or rinse. So, if you're already going to be scheduling a routine dental exam, be sure to look for a dentist that includes oral cancer screening. This way you can take even better care of your health while you're visiting the dentist.

What Happens If You Have Signs of Oral Cancer?

If a dentist or doctor detects abnormalities that they believe could indicate oral cancer, this is not a diagnosis. Abnormalities can occur for several reasons, and more information will be needed to determine whether or not the underlying cause is oral cancer. If abnormalities are detected during a screening, the healthcare professional will recommend you for further testing such as a biopsy of the tissue and/or blood tests. If further testing leads to an oral cancer diagnosis, then the patient will be referred to an oncologist for treatment. 

Oral Cancer Screening With our Dentist in Virginia Beach

At Cusp Dental Boutique, we perform oral cancer screenings with each of our dental examinations and an advanced oral cancer screening, annually. To learn more about the importance of screening for oral cancer or to make a reservation, we welcome you to contact our dental office in Virginia Beach today!

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