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Oral Cancer Screening and Your Dentist

Oral Cancer Screenings Your Dentist Should Perform

When you think about visiting your dentist, you are likely concerned with getting your teeth cleaned or cavities filled. Something many people often don’t think about is the risk of oral cancer. Each time you go to the dentist, he or she should be screening you for different types of oral cancer. Provided here are some things that you should know about oral cancer screening as well as some questions you should ask your dentist with each visit.

What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is the growth of abnormal cells anywhere in the mouth or in the part of the throat that is located in the back of the mouth, known by dentists as the oropharynx. The estimated number of new oral cancer diagnoses in the United States in 2014 is 42,440 while the number of estimated deaths during the same year stands at 8,390 according to the National Cancer Institute. Though it is true that oral cancer is not one of the leading causes of death in the US and that it is quite rare overall, it is more common among individuals who have certain risk factors. For instance, those who smoke, who use smokeless tobacco, and who work or who have worked in settings where they breathed in toxic chemicals are at much greater risk.

What Is Involved in a Screening?

In most cases, dentists should perform an oral exam each and every time you visit for routine preventative care, which is usually twice annually. During these appointments, your dentist should carefully examine the inside of your mouth – including your gums, under the tongue, and the oropharynx area – for anything that seems unusual, such as white or red patches and sores. He or she should also take the time to physically touch the various areas in the mouth to feel for lumps and other things that may be a warning signal that something is wrong. Of course, it should be noted that many, many people have mouth sores or other abnormalities that are completely non-cancerous. An examination alone cannot provide a diagnosis of cancer, but it can provide a starting point for those who are at risk.

What Your Dentist May Do

Aside from the standard oral examination, some dentists use additional methods to screen their patients for oral cancer. You may be asked at some point to rinse your mouth with a special blue dye before an examination; this dye is thought to adhere to abnormal cells and make them easier for your dentist to spot. The dentist may also shine a special light in your mouth (much like a black light) that will make the healthy tissues in your mouth appear dark while the abnormal ones appear to glow white. In both of these cases, though, the tests are generally inconclusive for those who are at average risk for contracting oral cancer. Many dentists can perform these exams, but reserve them for patients who are at an increased risk for contracting oral cancer – and for those who have had oral or other forms of cancer in the past.

What to Ask Your Dentist

If you are not at an increased risk for oral cancer, then no special tests are required when you visit your dentist outside of the traditional examination. However, if you have had any sort of cancer in the past, if you are a smoker, if you are a smokeless tobacco user, or if you have any other oral cancer risk factors, then you should ask your dentist the following questions:

  • What are the risk factors for oral cancer?
  • Do you screen for cancer during routine exams?
  • What special tests do you use to screen for cancer and how effective are they?
  • What is the first step if abnormalities are detected?

As with all types of cancer, early detection is the key to an effective treatment plan. In the case of oral cancer, early detection lies in not only the dentist’s hands, but also your own. If you notice abnormalities like sores that don’t heal, white patches that last longer than a few days, or lumps in your mouth, be sure to make an appointment with your dentist right away for an examination to rule out the possibility of cancer.


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