Oral Cancer Screenings

Oral cancer can occur in any part of the mouth when DNA in cells mutates. These abnormal cells can create a tumor that can spread inside the mouth and to other areas of the head and neck and other parts of the body. Oral cancer usually starts in the thin cells that line the inside of the mouth and lips.

When diagnosed early, the five-year survival rate for oral cancer is more than 80 percent. However, most mouth cancers remain undetected until the late stages of the disease. In these cases, the five-year survival rate drops to around 50 percent. This is why oral cancer screening is crucial.

Oral cancer screenings are designed to detect the early signs of the disease before it becomes more advanced. They are important because oral cancer can be successfully treated if diagnosed early. The Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF) says everyone aged 18 or over should get an oral cancer screening annually.

Oral Cancer Risk Factors

Studies have found a slight increase in risk of oral cancer if you have a close relative who has had the disease. People who have had mouth cancer previously are also at greater risk of getting the disease again. Some genetic conditions also carry an increased risk of oral cancer.

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) says there’s a possibility that jagged or broken teeth can increase the risk of oral cancer, and it encourages people to adopt a good routine of oral hygiene to reduce the danger.

Tobacco use exposes your mouth to chemicals that can cause cancer. Your dentist or doctor can offer advice on the most effective measures to quit smoking.

Your diet can also play a part in reducing the risk of oral cancer, especially the vitamins and antioxidants in vegetables and fruit.

Other factors that heighten the risk of oral cancer include:

  • Exposure to chemicals such as asbestos.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.
  • Excessive exposure of the lips to the sun.
  • A diet rich in fried food and red meat.
  • A weakened immune system.

The extent to which risk factors contribute to oral cancer is unclear. According to the American Cancer Society, some people who get oral cancer have few or no recognized risk factors, while others in the at-risk category never develop the disease.

Nevertheless, if you have persistent symptoms that are bothering you, it’s advisable to see your doctor, who will likely investigate more common causes for your problems, such as an infection.

Oral Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of oral cancer include:

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

Why Oral Cancer Screening is So Important

In most cases, oral cancer occurs after the age of 40, and the risk is more than twice as high in men. The risk increases with age, and many cases of oral cancer are diagnosed when people are in their 60s.

The Oral Cancer Foundation says that every year 50,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oral cancer or oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the throat, including the base of the tongue and the soft palate. The diseases kill almost 10,000 a year – a higher death rate than that of many other cancers.

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), in 2017 an estimated 51,540 adults in the U.S. were diagnosed with oropharyngeal or oral cancer. The average age of diagnosis was 62. More than 70 per cent of these people were men.

Frequently, oral cancer is only detected once it has spread to another location, typically the lymph nodes in the neck. Prognosis at this stage is significantly worse than when the disease is detected in the mouth.

Oral cancer is particularly dangerous because the early stages may not be apparent to the patient – it can often develop without pain or other symptoms. Mouth cancer also carries a high risk of spreading tumors.

Historically, the death rate with oral cancer is particularly high not because it’s difficult to diagnose but due to the disease being discovered late in its development. If spotted early, oral cancer can be cured by surgical removal of the tumor or by radiation therapy.

Surgery entails taking out the tumor and a margin of healthy tissue around it. A small tumor will require only minor surgery, but with larger ones, removal of part of the tongue or jaw bone may be necessary. Radiation therapy can be particularly beneficial in cases of oral cancer, using high-energy X-rays or radiation particles to target the tumor cells.

How Dentists Play a Vital Role in Oral Cancer Screening

Survival rates for cancer are good when the condition is detected early. However, you may not notice the initial stages of oral cancer yourself, so annual screenings are essential, and dentists diagnose 90 per cent of all neck and head cancers.

During oral cancer screening, your dentist will look for signs such as:

  • Defective salivary glands.
  • An irregular bite.
  • White marks on the tongue or gums.
  • Sores that show no sign of healing.

Your dentist is your first line of defense against oral cancer. If you notice any lumps or lesions in your mouth, or have problems swallowing, tell your dentist as soon as possible. A dentist experienced in oral cancer screening will examine your oral cavity as a whole – not just your teeth – to identify any cancerous or precancerous conditions.

At Coeur d’Alene Dental Center, we’re a family dental clinic that is fully equipped to check for oral cancer and all other concerns of the teeth and mouth. Contact us today to schedule a checkup. We’d be happy to help you achieve your oral health goals!