You probably know you should visit your dentist every six months for a cleaning, but did you realize that keeping your regular dental appointments might save your life? With the technological advancements in dentistry over the past few years, what was once considered an unfortunate diagnosis is now preventable. Today it is easier to detect oral cancer earlier and treat it successfully.
A Bit about Oral Cancer
Oral cancer is the rapid growth of cells that mutate, invade, and damage surrounding tissue. It can be found on the lips, cheeks, tongue, floor, and roof of the mouth, sinuses, and throat. When oral cancer is visible to the naked eye, it usually appears as swelling, bumps, rough spots, or red and white patches. You may also notice difficulty swallowing, numbness of the face, mouth, or neck, and unexplained bleeding in the mouth.
Usually, by the time symptoms are visible to the naked eye, the cancer is already in its late stages. So, you must visit your dentist often, ask about oral cancer screenings, and keep an eye out for any abnormalities.
Who is Considered High Risk?
The American Cancer Society says men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer, and those over age 50 are at the most significant risk. However, anyone can develop oral cancer, especially if one or more of the following factors are in play:
- Any tobacco use, including smoking (cigarettes, cigars, pipes), dip, snuff, or chewing tobacco, can significantly increase the risk of oral cancer.
- Excessive alcohol consumption can make it six times more likely to develop oral cancer than non-drinkers.
- Excessive sun exposure leaves unprotected lips at risk for spreading cancer throughout the mouth.
- Family history of cancer or related disease that can increase your risk factors.
How Does the Screening Work?
More and more dentists choose to perform oral cancer screenings during every regularly-scheduled cleaning and exam appointment because of the statistics. These tests can help discover things that the naked eye cannot easily see, increasing the chances of detecting cancer in the earlier stages.
Your dentist may choose to do one of two tests during your visit. There is nothing you need to do to prepare for this screening. Your dentist will provide what you need on the day of your appointment. The first test requires that you rinse with a special blue dye. Anything abnormal in your mouth will react and appear blue.
Many dental professionals use a VELscope for early detection. VELscope is non-invasive and uses light to detect changes in the soft tissue. It can scan all areas of the mouth and find even the early signs of cancer. Screenings are usually done once every 18 months with more frequent examinations for those showing signs of oral cancer or with a family history indicating a high risk.
What Happens if Something is Detected?
Abnormal findings will be noted immediately, but it does not always mean that it is cancer. Sometimes, scarring from bites and chewing on the inside of your lips may show up during the test. Your dentist will be able to rule these spots out immediately by looking in your mouth without the dye or light.
However, if there is something questionable, there will likely be follow-up tests and other consultations. It may start as a simple follow-up a few weeks later to see if the spot still shows up. Your dentist may refer you to an oral surgeon for further tests and a possible biopsy.
Mortality Rate of Oral Cancer
The survival rate for oral cancer is very high as long as it is detected in the early stages and hasn’t spread to any other parts of the body.
- 83% for localized cancer
- 64% for cancer that has spread to lymph nodes
- 38% for cancer that has spread to other parts of the body
However, even though the mortality rate is lower, there is a higher chance for facial disfigurement if cancer is not caught early. Removal may include a part of the jaw or cheek through surgery, resulting in scarring of the mouth and face.
It is important to visit your dentist regularly and ask about oral cancer screenings, especially if you have factors that may increase your risk of developing oral cancer. It’s better to catch it early to prevent unnecessary surgery and increase your chances of survival. If you have anything to share about detecting oral cancer early, please share it in the comments below!