The Importance of Oral Cancer Screenings

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Oral cancer can be a significant condition, and it affects the lives of many individuals across the world. The American Dental Association (ADA) categorizes oral cancer as cancer of the mouth and upper throat. This can include cancer of the lips, intraoral cheek area, gums, tongue, floor of the mouth, the hard and soft palate, tonsils, and pharynx. Sadly, oral cancer takes the lives of approximately one person every hour of every day annually, according to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS). As reported by the American Cancer Society (ACS), nearly 54,010 Americans were projected to be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancers in 2021.

The ADA reports that the most common oral and oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, representing approximately 90% of cancers in the head and neck region. Common risk factors for oral and oropharyngeal cancers include tobacco use, alcohol consumption, male gender (2X more likely than women), individuals 55 years of age and older, previous oral cancer diagnosis, and ultraviolet exposure (in cases of lip cancer), noted by the ACS. Research has also found that individuals with human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive head and neck cancers are linked to an increase in throat cancers in non-smoking adults. Regardless of risk factors, all individuals need to be screened for oral cancer. In fact, early detection makes a huge difference as the five-year relative survival rate for individuals whose cancerous lesion has not yet spread to other areas is 83%, versus only 36% of individuals whose cancer has metastasized, according to Colgate Professional.

Oral Cancer Awareness Month is recognized nationally each April and educating the masses on oral cancer may help lead to identification of risk factors, early detection, and thus typically better treatment prognoses. Fortunately, dentists can be in an ideal position to detect suspicious lesions in the head and neck area early-on. At each dental check-up, your dental professional will perform a simple oral cancer screening, which can help detect abnormalities before they progress. During the oral cancer screening, any existing asymmetries, swellings, bumps, color spots, ulcers, or other irregularities surrounding your face, neck, and oral cavity will be evaluated. It is also a great opportunity to ask questions and express any concerns you may have. If your dentist notices something suspicious, they may refer you for additional evaluation. In addition, they may perform a biopsy to remove cells for testing.

Sometimes, oral cancer presents without any symptoms. Others may experience a sore throat, pain, a numbness sensation, or trouble chewing, swallowing, or speaking. Common signs include an ulceration that does not appear to go away, a change in bite, or a hoarseness or change in voice. If you are noticing any of these signs or symptoms that do not seem to disappear after two weeks or more, inform your dentist immediately.

Be conscious of any risk factors that you may have. Do your best to change any habits that are in your control, which can help lower your chances of developing oral cancer. Remember, prevention and early detection are crucial!