Last Updated on: 21st November 2023, 10:09 am
Although oral cancer accounts for 3% of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States, it is not talked about often. Many of the cases are diagnosed late, which often compromises the lives of patients. In this article, we tell you everything about oral cancer and the importance of oral cancer screening.
Table of Contents
What is oral cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which cells begin to multiply uncontrollably and spread to other parts of the body. Normally, cells form and multiply as the body requires them. These cells are programmed to die when damaged or aged and then replaced by new ones. When there are alterations in this process, tumors can form. We speak of malignant or cancerous tumors when they are capable of metastasizing, that is, invading other parts of the body.
Oral cancer occurs in the following locations:
- The tongue
- Oral mucosa
- Hard palate
- Soft palate
- Back of the mouth
Oral cancer is a malignant condition that develops within the tissues of the mouth. It can pose a significant health threat due to its potential to spread to other parts of the body if not detected and treated early. Risk factors such as tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and certain viral infections are closely associated with the development of oral cancer. For more information, you can check out another related article that describes the early warning signs of mouth cancer.
Importance of oral cancer screening
Although it is found in the mouth, oral cancer can spread to other parts of the body and even compromise the life of the patient. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, when oral cancer is detected in its early stages, survival is much higher than when it is detected in the intermediate stage (when it has spread to surrounding areas or regional lymph nodes) or advanced (when it has spread to surrounding areas or regional lymph nodes and distant areas of the body).
Unfortunately, most cases are detected when they are in the intermediate or advanced stage, which is why the American Cancer Society estimates that by the year 2023, there may be more than 11,000 deaths caused by this pathology.
Who should I get screened for oral cancer?
All people should undergo a complete oral examination every 6 months, where through observation and palpation, the existence of abnormal lesions can be ruled out. However, it is recommended that those exposed to risk factors perform a monthly examination at home, using a mirror to detect spots, tumors, or any abnormality in the mouth. In certain instances, there can also be a link between root canals and cancer. Therefore, it’s essential to undergo thorough check-ups to ensure your health and well-being.
Who is at higher risk of developing oral cancer?
Oral cancer can occur in people of any age, race, and sex, but it has been shown to occur more frequently in white men over the age of 50. Most cases of oral cancer are related to tobacco use, alcoholic beverages, areca nut use, prolonged sun exposure, marijuana use, or the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. In addition, poor oral hygiene, poor nutrition, and a weakened immune system also increase the risk of this disease.
What are the warning signs that could help an early diagnosis?
The reason why most cases are detected late is because the lesions generally do not cause pain, and when they are evident to the patient, they are already too advanced. See your doctor if you have any of the following signs or symptoms:
- Oral ulcers that do not heal
- Nodular growths in the mouth, lips, neck, or throat
- White or red spots on the mucosa, gums, or tongue
- The sensation of an object stuck in the throat
- Persistent sore throats
- Numbness of the tongue or mouth generally
- The feeling of bulging or thickening of the cheek
- Problems chewing or moving the tongue
- Persistent bad breath
- Unexplained tooth loss
- Difficulty fitting dentures that previously worked well
- Rapid weight loss for no obvious reason
- Loss of appetite
Keep in mind that cancer often starts without early signs. Similarly, many of the signs and symptoms may be the result of other medical conditions. Therefore, it is essential to receive medical and dental care regularly to perform routine exams.
What to expect during an oral cancer screening?
A visual examination and palpation for cancer detection are part of a routine dental evaluation. It is a simple and quick process in which the dental professional checks all the tissues of the mouth, looking for abnormalities known as “precancerous lesions”. In the presence of an unusual lesion or observation, the doctor or dentist may indicate other, more specialized tests:
- Visualization of fluorescence (VELscope)
Using an optical biopsy system, cancerous lesions can be recognized. This is possible thanks to the knowledge we have of the interaction between light and normal tissues. When cells are cancerous, the autofluorescence of the tissue is altered, telling the examiner that something is wrong.
A biopsy is the study of a small amount of tissue under a microscope. Although other tests indicate the presence of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to reach a definitive diagnosis, where it is known with certainty what type it is. The cells for the study can be collected using a brush that scrapes the area or fine needle aspiration, under local anesthesia. Subsequently, the sample is transferred to a laboratory, where a pathologist processes and examines it.
It is important to know the risk factors for developing oral cancer and to be alert to the warning signs. Early detection of this disease can make treatments more effective and less invasive. Timely diagnosis of this pathology saves lives.
Frequently Asked Questions
After conducting 4 rounds of screenings, the study investigators’ final report noted a consistent decrease in the mortality rate of 81% (a 95% confidence interval [CI], 69%-89%). In addition, a 38% (95% CI, 8-59%) reduction in the incidence of oral cancer was observed in the screened population as compared to a control group.
Those who use tobacco and alcohol face an increased risk of developing oral cancer. Your dental hygienist or dentist will be interested in learning about your general health, including specific dental problems. During the cancer screening process, the dentist will examine both the inside and outside of your mouth.
Tobacco use represents one of the most critical risk factors for types of head and neck cancer, including oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. People who smoke face a significantly higher risk of developing these cancers as compared to non-smokers. Most patients with this type of cancer have a history of smoking or other forms of tobacco exposure, such as the use of chewing tobacco.
Generally, it is suggested that everyone get oral cancer screenings at least every 12 months by a dental professional or dental hygienist. However, since each individual is unique, it is advisable to discuss the appropriate frequency for these check-ups with your dentist, as some people may require more frequent check-ups.
If you have any questions about dental conditions or other topics, you can contact us at Channel Islands Family Dental as well as our page on Facebook. We look forward to your visit and we will make a timely diagnosis. Our dentists in Oxnard, Santa Paula, Ventura, Newbury Park, and Port Hueneme will be able to guide you toward the best treatment to take care of your health and give you back your best smile.
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- Vibhute, N. A., Jagtap, S. V., & Patil, S. V. (2021). Velscope guided oral cancer screening: A ray of hope in early oral cancer diagnosis. Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology: JOMFP, 25(3), 548–549. https://doi.org/10.4103/jomfp.JOMFP_315_20