Not Just Teeth: Oral Cancer Screening by Your Dentist

Did you know that April is Mouth Cancer Awareness Month? Oral cancer rates continue despite current therapies. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure when it comes to oral cancer. What does your dentist have to do with cancer diagnosis, though?

Not Just Teeth: Oral Cancer Screening by My Dental Team for My Overall Health

Did you know when the dentist calls for your six-month appointment it is not just to clean and check your teeth? Dentists also perform cancer screenings to look for cancer in your mouth, also called “oral cancer.” Nearly 54,000 Americans will find out they have oral cancer this year. Only about half of people who get oral cancer live past five years from the time they find out, making it a deadly risk to your overall health.

What is an oral cancer screening like?

Your dentist will look at your face, neck, gums, tongue, cheeks, and the back of your throat for any signs of cancer. They will also feel your neck, lips, the floor of your mouth, and your tongue for any lumps or bumps that shouldn't be there. If your dentist is concerned about a spot on your face or a lump in your mouth, they will send you to your doctor to figure out the next steps in your treatment. Dentists and doctors work together to treat oral cancer.

What are the symptoms of oral cancer?

Symptoms vary for every patient. See your dentist or doctor if you notice any of these for two weeks or longer:

  • White and/or red patches.

  • Sore spots, bumps, or rough patches.

  • The feeling that something is caught in your throat

  • Trouble chewing, swallowing, or speaking.

  • Issues moving your jaw or tongue.

  • Pain, numbness, and/or swelling in your mouth, throat, tongue, or ears.

Many people with oral cancer might not notice it themselves because they don’t feel different. Oral cancer can appear like things that are not cancer such as a common sore or even a freckle. Dentists are trained to tell the difference between cancer and something else.

How do people get oral cancer? 

Smoking and drinking alcohol like beer, wine, and liquor are the most common reasons people will get oral cancer. Being infected with viruses like HPV (the virus of herpes) and HIV (the virus of AIDS) also makes a person more likely to get oral cancer. Too much sun exposure on your face also causes cancer on your lips or on your face. 

The “Bad S’s” are the most common causes of oral cancer:

  • Smoking (Tobacco)

  • “Spirits” (Alcohol)

  • Sunlight

  • Sexual Contact (HPV and HIV)

80% of cases of oral cancer are in people 55 years and older. However, any person can get oral cancer at any time in their life. This includes people who don’t smoke or drink, and have good health. That is why everyone should get an oral cancer screening by their dentist once a year. Oral cancer can be cured more easily when it is found early. Sadly, oral cancer is often found late.

Why do people find their oral cancer so late?

Millions of Americans don’t see their dentist often enough. In 2019, one out of three adults under age 65 hadn't had a dental exam or cleaning in the last year. That means one out of three people missed a chance to catch oral cancer early. Remember: Finding oral cancer early is the most important thing to help a patient get the treatment they need to survive

How can I help protect myself from oral cancer?

See your dentist as soon as possible if you see an odd spot in your mouth or throat. Decrease use of tobacco products like cigarettes, snuff and chew. Lower the amount of alcohol you drink. Wear sunscreen on your face and a hat that shades your face while in the sun. Wear lip balm with sunscreen in it. Ask your doctor if you should get the HPV vaccine. Practice safe sex to avoid sharing the HPV or HIV viruses. See your dentist at least once a year for your oral cancer screening.

Use the “Good S’s” to prevent oral cancer:

  • Stop using alcohol and tobacco

  • Sunscreen on your lips and face

  • Safe Sex

  • Screenings by your dentist

Your dentist might be the first one to notice something more serious going on with your overall health like oral cancer. Visiting your dentist once a year for an oral cancer screening could be the five minutes that makes a difference in finding cancer early.

This is essay was also my submission to the ADA’s 2022 national health literacy contest.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.


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