The Basics of Oral Cancer Screenings for High-Risk Patients in Orange County
Dr. Brian Toorani, a graduate of the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry, and his team know how important it is to maintain your oral and dental health.
An oral cancer screening is an exam performed by your dentist to check for signs of cancer or precancerous conditions in your mouth. The main goal of this screening is to catch cancer early when there is a greater chance for a cure. ?If you engage in any of the following, you may be at a higher risk of oral cancer:
- Tobacco use.
- Heavy alcohol use.
- Significant sun exposure (lip cancer).
And according to cancercenter.com, those who use both tobacco and alcohol in excess can actually increase their risk to 100% more than non-smokers and drinkers.
Also, while younger people may think that they are not at risk for oral cancer, they should keep in mind that the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease, can cause cancers in the oral cavity.
Despite the fact that oral cancer screenings can’t detect all forms of oral cancer, it is still recommended to get tested periodically. Most oral cancer screenings are performed during routine dental appointments.
What Do Oral Cancer Screenings Involve?
These kinds of screenings don’t actually involve any x-rays, blood work, and/or similar testing. Instead, the dentist will palpate (a process of using one’s hands to do exams) your tongue, thyroid, mouth, face, salivary glands, and lymph nodes. And if a patient has a removal appliance, like a retainer or dentures, he or she may need to remove it so that the soft palate, tongue, and gums can be examined. Those with dentures especially should consider oral cancer screenings, since any ill-fitting dentures can trap bacteria underneath.
In order to see your tonsils, the dentist may use a dental mirror as a tongue depressor. To assess your tongue for cancer, you may need to stick it out while the dentist holds it with gauze to look it over. With gloved fingers, the dentist will check the inside of your cheeks, the roof of your mouth, your lips, for any lumps or red or white patches. Lastly, the dentist will check your neck for any swollen or tender areas.
Again, these screenings are usually performed during your yearly or six-month check-ups, but if you aren’t a high-risk individual and only made an appointment for a cleaning, the dentist may forgo it on very busy days unless you specifically request it.
Why You May Need a Screening
Heavy alcohol use
Previous oral cancer diagnosis
Lots of sun exposure
What Happens If I Discover Oral Cancer Early On?
Although no one wants to find out they have cancer, there is a silver lining to early discovery: higher recovery rates. Cancer.net says that the five-year survival rate for oral cancer is a little more than 63%, but this number can jump up to 83% if it detected early.
Even with a cancer diagnosis, you can still lower your risk factors, like smoking. For example, an article by Stacy Simon says that while some patients quit smoking after such upsetting news of cancer, many actually continue smoking! Even though you may already have cancer, quitting can still improve your survival rate and reduce the risk of metastasis or spreading tumors.
While oral cancer from smoking may start in your mouth, it can spread to your lymph nodes and even to the lungs and other large organs. Even with a cancer diagnosis, it’s never too late to quit smoking and reduce ill effects.
What Kind of Treatments Would Be Available?
Like many other cancers, you may treat oral cancer with chemo and radiation therapy. In later stages of oral cancer, you may need surgery to remove cancerous cells, like those in the larynx, in parts of the tongue, and in lymph nodes in the neck.
While some patients can make a full recovery and go into remission, others may suffer devastating losses even with a cure. For instance, a laryngectomy is a surgery where portions of tissue from the voice box are removed. People who have to undergo this kind of treatment are left with a hole in their neck in which to breathe through, and they lose their voice
If I’m a High-Risk Individual, What Should I Look For?
While in-office cancer screenings are a good way to catch the early signs of cancer, high-risk individuals should be checking for signs on their own time as well. And as you can see, because the in-office treatments don’t require any tools for thorough exams, you can easily use a mirror to check for changes in your oral cavity, such as red spots, white spots, nodules, swelling, crusty patches, and the like.
Other early symptoms of oral cancer to watch for include:
- a growing lump in your neck.
- swollen lymph nodes.
- a cold that won’t go away.
- pain in the throat when swallowing.
- a chronic cough.
- a hoarse voice.
- thickening skin.
- cuts or sores that bleed often or don’t completely heal.
Even if you doubt that a symptom is related to oral cancer, it wouldn’t hurt to bring up the issue with your dentist anyway just to rule it out and discover the root problem. For instance, dry mouth is a condition that is a side effect of many medications; however, it can cause split skin around the lips that may not heal well and sores in the mouth similar to cancer.