Oral Cancer Screenings: Why Detecting Early Signs Leads to Better Outcomes

Oral cancer screening

According to the American Cancer Society, your risk of developing oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer during your lifetime is approximately 1 in 60 for men and 1 in 141 for women. Catching oral cancer in its earliest stages is critical. When diagnosed early, the 5-year relative survival rate for all people is 86% but only 68% overall. Thankfully, about 28% of oral and oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed early, and one of the primary reasons for this is oral cancer screenings by your dentist.

What to Expect During An Oral Cancer Screening 

Oral cancer is one of those cancers that, when caught early, has a very high survival rate. Unfortunately, oral cancer is too often detected late in its development. But, if you visit your dentist near Greenville, SC, every six months for a routine check-up and professional dental cleaning, you will also receive an oral cancer screening.

These oral cancer screenings include an examination of the following.

  • Gums
  • Lips
  • Cheek lining
  • Floor and roof of your mouth
  • Tongue
  • Tonsils

Patients should know, however, that oral cancer screenings are not designed to diagnose oral cancer. They help identify anything suspicious, and if something is found, your dentist or healthcare provider will refer you to an oncologist for additional testing, potential diagnosis, and oral cancer treatment.

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer 

The American Cancer Society indicates that risk factors encompass various elements that heighten an individual’s likelihood of developing diseases, with each type of cancer having its distinct set of contributing factors. While certain risk factors, such as smoking, can be modified, others, including age and family history, remain fixed.

Nevertheless, it’s crucial to recognize that the presence of risk factors, even multiple ones, does not guarantee the onset of the disease, as many individuals who do develop the disease possess minimal or unknown risk factors.

  • Smoking and Tobacco Use: The use of tobacco products, including smoking cigarettes or cigars and chewing tobacco, increases the risk of developing oral cancer due to the harmful chemicals present in these substances.
  • Heavy Drinking: Excessive and prolonged alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of oral cancer, as alcohol can irritate the cells in the mouth and throat.
  • Family History of Oral Cancer: Individuals with a family history of oral cancer have a higher susceptibility to developing the disease, as there may be inherited genetic factors that contribute to its occurrence.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV16): Infection with the Human Papillomavirus (specifically HPV16) is a significant risk factor for oral cancer, particularly in the oropharyngeal region.
  • Exposure to Direct Sunlight Over Long Periods of Time: Prolonged exposure to sunlight, particularly without adequate protection, can increase the risk of developing lip cancer.
  • Lack Of or Insufficient Use of Sunscreen: Failing to use sunscreen or lip balm with adequate sun protection factor (SPF) can leave the lips vulnerable to the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation, potentially increasing the risk of lip cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, consistently utilizing SPF 15 sunscreen daily can decrease the likelihood of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by approximately 40%, while reducing the risk of melanoma by 50%.

Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cancer 

So, what is your dentist looking for during an oral cancer screening examination? Here is a list of the most common oral cancer symptoms and signs per the Mayo Clinic.

  • A Lip or Mouth Sore That Doesn’t Heal: Persistent sores on the lip or mouth that fail to heal could indicate oral cancer, requiring further evaluation and medical attention.
  • A White or Reddish Patch on the Inside of Your Mouth: A white or reddish patch on the inner lining of the mouth can be a potential sign of oral cancer, warranting prompt assessment by a healthcare professional.
  • Loose Teeth: Unexplained loosening of teeth without any apparent dental issues may be an alarming symptom of oral cancer, and a dental examination is advisable.
  • A Growth or Lump Inside Your Mouth: The discovery of an abnormal growth or lump inside the mouth, such as on the tongue, gums, or other oral tissues, should be investigated, as it could be a possible indication of oral cancer.
  • Mouth Pain: Persistent pain in the mouth that does not subside can be a symptom of oral cancer and should be evaluated to identify the underlying cause.
  • Ear Pain: Unexplained pain in the ears that persists without any evident ear-related issues may be associated with oral cancer and requires medical assessment to determine the source of the discomfort.
  • Difficult or Painful Swallowing: Difficulty or pain experienced while swallowing food, liquids, or saliva may be a symptom of oral cancer, necessitating medical evaluation to assess the underlying cause and provide appropriate care.

Treatments for Oral Cancer 

The treatment for oral cancer varies depending on the stage and extent of the disease. In the early stages, such as stage I or II, surgery is often the primary treatment approach, aiming to remove the tumor and a margin of healthy tissue surrounding it. Radiation therapy may also be combined with surgery to ensure thorough eradication of cancer cells.

A multidisciplinary approach combining surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy is commonly employed for more advanced stages, such as stage III or IV. This comprehensive treatment strategy aims to remove the tumor, eliminate any remaining cancer cells, and prevent the spread of the disease to surrounding tissues or lymph nodes.

In cases where cancer has spread to distant organs or metastasized, systemic therapies such as targeted therapy or immunotherapy may target cancer cells throughout the body.

Prioritize oral cancer screenings to protect your oral and overall health.

Prioritizing your oral health and proactively addressing the risk factors associated with oral cancer can significantly contribute to your overall well-being. Take the first step toward a healthier future by scheduling an appointment with Monroe Family Dentistry for a professional dental cleaning and comprehensive oral cancer screening.
Additionally, making positive lifestyle changes like quitting smoking can reduce your risk of developing oral cancer. Remember, if you experience any of the symptoms we discussed, or you have concerns, don’t hesitate to promptly contact your dentist or healthcare provider for guidance and an evaluation. Your proactive actions today can significantly impact your oral health tomorrow.

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