What is an Oral Cancer Screening?

By Dr. James Forester | Sep 20, 2022 | General Oral Care, Oral Cancer
Cancer Screening

Every adult needs to be annually screened for oral cancer at dental checkups, as per the American Dental Association oral cancer screening guideline.

Why? Because early detection and treatment comes with an 80-90% five-year survival rate, which means early intervention saves lives!

One person dies of oral cancer every hour of every single day.

Most often, oral cancers are identified in later stages, when the survival rate is not good. Sadly, half of the patients diagnosed with oral cancer today will not be alive in five years, according to OralCancerFoundation.org.

At Lifetime Smiles in Johns Creek, GA, Dr. James Forester employs the VELscope for a speedy oral cancer exam that can detect suspicious cells even before they reach the surface.

Since early detection is the precursor to early treatment, and early treatment saves lives, having your annual oral cancer screening is imperative.

But what causes cancerous cells to develop in the first place?

risksRisk Factors for Oral Cancers

Risk factors for oral cancer include tobacco and alcohol use, so many people assume that oral cancer is prevalent primarily in people who chew or smoke tobacco, and those who consume a regular diet of alcoholic beverages.

The truth is, HPV-16, which is the same human papilloma virus strain that causes cervical cancer, leads to a significant number of oral cancer diagnoses. Only 10% of cases are caused by other factors, many of which are yet unknown.

(H3) Risks for developing oral cancer:

  • Chewing tobacco
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Regular alcohol consumption
  • HPV-16
  • Other/unknown factors

So when scheduling your next dental visit at Lifetime Smiles, let us know you want an oral cancer screening. (Note that patients under 18 who use tobacco also need annual exams for oral cancer.)

Types of screenings will be covered later in this article, so keep reading and learning!

symptomsOral Cancer Symptoms

How can you tell if you have oral cancer? In addition to development on the tongue and soft tissues of the oral cavity, oral cancers can occur on the lips and in the oropharynx, which includes the back of the mouth where tonsils are housed, as well as the tonsils themselves.

Oftentimes, head and neck cancers are grouped with oral cancers, and this pushes the incidence rate and mortality rate even higher.

If you’re concerned about oral cancer symptoms, call Lifetime Smiles to schedule an appointment.

self checkSelf-Exam for Oral Cancer

Though you cannot clearly see all of the tissues in your mouth, you can conduct a weekly self exam at home. With a small mirror or dental mirror, look for lesions that:

  • Are located on the lips or soft tissues of the mouth, including the tongue and tonsils
  • Appear red, white, or purplish (in contrast to healthy tissue) anywhere in the mouth
  • Present with a different texture than surrounding healthy tissue
  • Feel thick, such as a thickening on the interior cheek or between the interior and exterior skin of the lips
  • On the gum tissue, bleed easily when touched
  • Are pea-sized thickenings on the surface, tip, sides, or underbelly of the tongue
  • Feel or look abnormal or hard on the floor of your mouth
  • Feel texturally different on the roof, or hard palate, of your mouth (bumps and a center ridge are normal)
  • On the tonsils, appear swollen, do not hurt, and do not subside in three weeks
  • Do not heal on their own in 14 days

Also gently check your neck and head for unusual lumps. Visit the Check your Mouth(™)  website for step-by-step, detailed instructions on self examinations.

If you notice abnormalities, please call our dentist immediately and request a next-available appointment for a professional oral cancer screening.

Commonly, what may appear to you as suspicious ends up being quite normal. However, because early detection allows for early treatment, it’s better to be sure.

preventionHow to Prevent Oral Cancer

The most valuable things you can do to prevent oral cancer are:

  • Stop using tobacco (ask our dentist or your doctor for smoking cessation help)
  • Limit or cease alcohol consumption (ask our dentist or your physician for help stopping alcohol use)
  • Get the HPV vaccine (as early as age 9; as old as age 26; sometimes doctors will give it up to age 45 depending on lifestyle factors)
  • Only have protected sex or abstain altogether
  • Undergo an annual oral cancer screening

VelscopeTypes of Professional Oral Cancer Screenings

Manual: Traditionally, dentists manually perform a Comprehensive Oral Exam, or COE, that includes a manual oral cancer screening. Using gauze and a handheld mirror, the dentist examines all soft tissues of the oral cavity. A thorough assessment of the head, neck, face, mouth, and throat can be performed in mere minutes.

High-Tech: More technologically-focused dentists, like Dr. Forester of Lifetime Smiles, may employ a digital examination tool, such as a ViziLite(r) or VELscope(™) for soft oral tissues. These tools rely on a special light that reflects varying colors as it penetrates soft tissues and bounces back. Though false positives occur, these tools reveal potentially cancerous cells (ie: squamous carcinomas and papillary gland tumors) before they are visible to the naked eye.

whats nextWhat to Do After an Oral Cancer Screening

Hopefully the exam will return no findings. However, if a lesion or suspicious cells are identified, a biopsy will be taken and sent to a lab for analysis. Biopsies in the dentist’s office may be taken with a needle, brush, or scalpel.

If cancer is confirmed by the lab, you’ll need to visit an oncologist – a doctor who specializes in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Some dentists refer to an oncologist for the biopsy instead of performing it in-office.

The oncologist will order tests to determine the extent and level of the cancer, then discuss treatment options with you.

Additional tests may include any of the following:

  • Endoscopy: scoping your nose and throat with a tiny fiber optic
  • X-ray
  • MRI
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • Others

phone callHave You Been Screened for Oral Cancer Lately?

An annual oral cancer screening should be part of everyone’s regular preventive dental care regimen. It could literally open the door to saving your life, should you develop a head, neck, throat, or other oral cancer.

If you don’t remember our dentist performing an oral cancer screening during your last visit, or you’d like to experience screening with VELscope, call Lifetime Smiles in Johns Creek, GA today at (770) 232-1830.

Dr. Forester and our team of dental professionals want to help you avoid oral cancer or, at a minimum, detect it in the earliest stage so you can get prompt treatment.