Each year, approximately 35,000 Americans will develop oral cancer. Early detection and treatment is essential for a positive prognosis. Professionals in the general dentistry industry advocate that at least a visual screening be routinely performed. However, this serious type of cancer is rarely discussed during most office visits. This makes it vital to be proactive and discuss your screening options with your dentist.
The first step in discovering malignancies in the oral cavity is a routine oral exam at each visit. During this unobtrusive screening, the dentist inspects the inside of the mouth, checking for abnormalities. He or she may want to run further tests on any sores or red or white patches that are found, even though the majority of these irregularities are benign. The most widely accepted method for early screening is a visual inspection by a trained professional, but there are also a couple of tools that can be used to assist.
You may be asked to rinse out your mouth with a blue dye which attaches to abnormal cells, making them easier to detect. Alternatively, your dentist may shine a special kind of light into your mouth. This may aid in the detection of unhealthy cells by making them appear as a different color than healthy ones. Neither of these tests can screen for cancer, however, so if the dentist identifies an area that they are suspicious of, they may want to have it biopsied. This is the only test that definitively confirms or denies the existence of cancerous cells.
There are a number of symptoms to watch out for if you are concerned about developing oral cancer. It often starts out as a red or white spot anywhere in the oral cavity, including on the lips, gums, cheek lining, tongue and palate. Other symptoms to be aware of include: mouth sores that do not heal, pain unrelated to any other known conditions, a change in the way teeth fit together, or difficulty controlling the muscles in the mouth. Alcohol use and smoking greatly increase the occurrence, though it can develop in patients who do not drink or smoke. It also generally occurs in people over the age of 40.
Periodontitis, or gum disease, is unrelated to the development of oral cancer, so even if a person has excellent oral hygiene, they may still be at risk. Talk to your doctor or dentist about in-depth screenings if you have some of the possible symptoms, a history of oral cancer or concerns about the disease. The greatest risk is failure to identify the problem before it has spread (metastasized) into the lymph nodes or other areas of the body.
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