Oral cancers can often go undiagnosed until the later stages, after they have spread to the lymph nodes. That's why regular oral cancer screening is crucial in the prevention and early diagnosis of the disease. Here, our Edmonton dentists explain.
Why is oral cancer screening so important?
Cancers of the oral cavity (lips, cheeks, tongue) and the oropharynx (soft palate, tonsils, throat) can crop up in a variety of ways and are not always easy to spot.
Not all patients have pain or irritation, and symptoms can be barely noticeable in the early stages.
This makes the oral cancer screenings performed by your dentist crucially important.
When should I be screened for oral cancer?
During bi-annual check-ups, your dentist and hygienist will thoroughly look for changes and lesions in the mouth, but a dedicated comprehensive oral cancer screening should be performed at least once each year.
People over the age of 45 are most at risk, but anyone age 18 or older should undergo routine annual screenings.
What does the oral cancer screening process entail?
An oral cancer screening by your dentist and dental hygienist is a completely painless process.
During the screening, they will closely examine the maxillofacial and oral regions for signs of pathologic changes. They will look for signs including red patches and sores, leukoplakia (hardened white or gray lesions), and lumps.
To begin, your dentist will feel the face, glands and neck for any unusual bumps. Then, using dental lasers, they will look for any abnormal signs and lesions which would be invisible to the naked eye.
What if my dentist finds signs of oral cancer?
The good news is that oral cancer can be treated successfully if caught early enough.
If abnormalities, lesions, leukoplakia or lumps are apparent, your dentist will implement an initial treatment plan. If this plan is ineffective, a biopsy of the area will be performed to identify the precise stage and grade of the oral lesion which will help determine additional treatment options.
Rest assured, your dentist and dental hygienist will support you through the process and answer any questions you have along the way.
How can I prevent oral cancer?
Practicing good oral hygiene is a good start. Regular brushing and flossing can go a long way to keep your mouth healthy.
Patients should also consider changing lifestyle choices like using tobacco (smoking and smokeless) and drinking too much alcohol. With habits like smoking and drinking, the longer you do it, the more your risk for developing oral cancer goes up.
Limiting sun exposure and wearing sunscreen and lip balm with SPF when you're outside, can also help to protect your face from ultraviolet radiation from sunlight.
Overall, visiting your dentist regularly is the key to prevention and early diagnosis.