If you’re like most, you get lots of health screenings from lots of providers each year. Gynecologists run annual Pap smears. Urologists screen for prostate cancer. Primary care physicians conduct annual physicals to look for all kinds of potential health concerns.
So why would it be any different with your dentist?
Of course, as we noted before, oral cancer screening as part of your dental exam still isn’t quite the norm, though the situation is improving. And it needs to improve.
Consider: Claims involving an oral cancer diagnosis rose 61% between 2011 and 2015, with most cases involving the tongue and throat. The American Cancer Society estimates that almost 50,000 new cases will arise this year, and nearly 10,000 people will die. As the Oral Cancer Foundation notes,
The death rate for oral cancer is higher than that of cancers which we hear about routinely such as cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, laryngeal cancer, cancer of the testes, and endocrine system cancers such as thyroid.
Why? Most oral cancers are found quite late, when they’re much harder to treat; hence, the importance of early screening and prevention.
Screenings are often as simple as a quick exam during your regular checkup. In just a few minutes, we can tell whether cancer of the mouth or upper throat is a concern. We check the mouth, lips, gums, tongue, tonsils, and other soft tissues for lesions or abnormalities. We check the neck and lymph nodes.
Some dentists will rely on high-tech tools such as VelScope or OralID, which are said to detect lesions even earlier, but properly done, a traditional “inspection and palpation” exam is enough (“palpation” means to touch or push against the tissues).
Signs you might notice on your own include persistent mouth sores, mouth or ear pain, chronic hoarseness, a non-tender lump in the neck, abnormal swelling, or a peculiar sore throat. If you experience any of these, get in to see your dentist as soon as possible.
As for prevention, it involves more than just addressing the usual culprits of tobacco use and heavy drinking. In fact, one of the reasons we’ve seen oral cancer rates rise through recent years, especially among younger people, is HPV.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US, and the CDC reports that more than 1 in 5 adults has cancer-causing HPV. That’s currently about 80 million infected American). The virus is transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. Your best options for preventing oral transmission? Practice safer sex or abstain from oral sex altogether. (Read more about preventing oral cancer here.)
With education, awareness, and a preventative approach, you can reduce your risk of oral cancer.