The best offense when considering the risk of oral cancer is a good defense. It’s always easier to prevent cancer by limiting risk factors than it is to treat a patient who has already developed the disease. Although frightening, oral cancer can be treated effectively, especially if discovered early on. Routine dental visits can prevent oral cancer, as well as provide treatment.
Why You Need Oral Cancer Screening
Oral cancer is often un-diagnosed and then spreads to other areas of the body, such as the tongue, tonsils, pharynx, and gums, resulting in serious health problems. Unless a dentist is using specialized tools, it may be difficult to see lesions or signs of growth in oral tissues. Early symptoms can be uniquely difficult to catch, for they are often painless and look similar to common sores.
Patients at Risk
The risk of developing oral cancer is dependent on many factors, genetics and behavior being two prominent ones. Certain behaviors, such as tobacco use, can increase the risk significantly; approximately 80 percent of oral cancer patients are those who use tobacco products. Smoke-less tobacco, although advertised as a healthier option, actually increases the risk for oral cancer, while smoking tobacco can affect both the mouth and lungs. Smoking and vaping can also contribute to periodontal disease and exacerbate tooth decay.
Excessive alcohol consumption, defined as more than 21 drinks per week, has been found to contribute to abnormal tissue development in the dentition. Alcohol dehydrates gums and supporting structures, decreasing our bodies’ ability to repair tissue and protect against infection. Alcohol consumption and tobacco use combined can significantly multiply the risk of oral cancer, up to 15 times the normal level. Reducing or eliminating these habits is crucial to protecting teeth and soft tissue from infection and permanent damage.
The common thread for these issues is the consumption of products which reduce saliva production, dry out the dentition, and encourage gum inflammation. Oral cancer risks increase when oral health is not maintained, so at-risk individuals should consider minimizing the above habits for a healthier smile.
Components of an Oral Cancer Exam
If you are worried about an oral cancer exam being a painful process, don’t be! The oral cancer exam is a completely painless process in which the dentist or dental hygienist conducts a visual examination of your mouth and throat areas, searching for any abnormality in the look or feel of the face, neck, or glands. They will check for any unusual lumps, bumps, or patches that could potentially indicate a problem.
As a part of this examination, the dentist or dental hygienist may also choose to incorporate the use of lasers, which can “see” underneath the surface to detect problems which cannot be detected by the naked eye and can be missed during a routine dental checkup. This laser can detect issues such as abnormalities like lesions which might be invisible to the unaided eye.
If during this thorough oral cancer examination, your dentist or dental hygienist detect these issues, they will put together a diagnostic impression and treatment plan. If that initial treatment plan is not found to be fully effective, a biopsy of the affected area will be recommended and then performed. This biopsy will include a clinical evaluation that will discern which exact stage and grade the oral lesion is in and if it is cancerous or benign.
If you have any questions about oral cancer, be sure to ask your dentist at your next check-up and see if they will perform a more specific screening.