An oral cancer screening is usually part of a normal dental exam, where your dentist inspects your face, neck, lips, and mouth to look for any signs of oral cancer.
We all need one because close to 43,250 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. (Source: Oral Cancer Foundation).
Dentists are often the first line of defense against oral cancer, because they’re the ones that are looking in our mouths on what we hope is a regular every six month – or more frequent, depending on risk factors – rotation.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, in addition to April 13th-19th being National Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. With that we’ll try to help lend some awareness to the cause by answering a couple of questions about what should be a normal part of our routine health care.
Oral cancer screenings are as important as cervical, prostate, breast and other cancer exams that are now so common to us all.
This is especially true when they start asking questions that don’t seem so rhetorical but make it nearly impossible to answer with anything more than garbled gibberish as their hands poke & prod around our mouths.
Yet they still seem to know what we’re talking about!
Part of that time when our dentists are physically examining our mouths they are doing an oral cancer screening to look for potential precancerous warning signs and/or concerning existing evidence.
As the OCF puts it, a good oral cancer exam by your dentist is visual AND tactile.
Some dentists will use additional devices when performing an oral cancer screening, these can be special lights, dies, or rinses that can help dentists get a more direct visual impression of the suspected area(s).
Oral cancer is one of the fastest growing types of cancer we are seeing today.
There’s basically two ways we can get it, one is environmental – primarily smoking & alcohol – and the other is HPV, or the human papillomavirus.
We all need oral cancer screenings at the dentist because of those 43,250 newly diagnosed individuals referenced above (from the OCF), only slightly more than half of those people will be alive in 5 years. (Approximately 57%)
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, or skin cancer (malignant melanoma).
These numbers don’t even account for oral and oropharyngeal cancers to include cancer of the larynx, for which the numbers of diagnosed cases grow to approximately 54,000 individuals, and 13,500 deaths per year in the U.S. alone.
An oral cancer screening is an essential part of every dental exam, and should be done at least annually according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.
Although a screening is not a guarantee that every cancer or precancer will be caught, especially in those that rise from HPV viral infections, oral cancer exams are:
2. Inexpensive or often free
If you are old enough to have engaged in sexual contact, you are old enough to require an oral cancer examination regularly.
If your dentist says that you don’t need an oral cancer screening because you are young, a non-smoker, or for any other reason, you are talking to someone who is not up to date in their knowledge.
Cases of oral cancer are growing fastest in young, non-smoking individuals who come to the disease from the HPV16 virus – which is also a leading cause in cervical cancer.
Since it is the most common sexually transferred infection in the United States, the CDC has said that between 50-80 % of the entire US population will have an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime.
People with infections have no symptoms, so you will never know that you have been exposed or that your body has cleared it.
If your dentist does not perform an oral cancer screening automatically, ASK FOR IT.
It is your health and your life that is being protected by being proactive with your oral & overall health.