Have you ever wondered what your dentist or hygienist is doing at your dental visit when they feel the sides of your throat and jaw, or ask you to stick your tongue out? They’re probably checking for signs of oral cancer. Oral cancer screenings are commonly performed during regular cleanings and exams as a precaution. If there are any signs of oral cancer, the earlier it’s found, the more treatment options you will have.
Why Dentists Screen for Oral Cancer
Visiting your dentist at least twice a year will not only keep your mouth healthy, but it also gives your dentist a chance to check for signs of oral cancer. Oral cancer is defined as any cancer found in the mouth area. The good news is a majority of oral cancer risk factors are preventable. Oral cancer risk factors include:
- Tobacco use
- Heavy alcohol use
- Excessive sun exposure
- HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
- Previous history of oral cancer
If you have one or more of these risk factors, schedule an appointment with your dentist and ask them to perform an oral cancer screening.
What Your Dentist will Look At
During an oral cancer screening, your dentist or hygienist will check for signs of oral cancer by examining the following:
- The inside and outside of your lips
- Your gums
- The inside of your cheeks
- Your tongue (top, bottom, and sides)
- The roof and floor of your mouth
- The back of your throat
- Underneath your jaw
What Your Dentist is Looking For
Using a small light and a mirror, your dentist or hygienist will check these areas to look for the following:
- Red or white patch
- Sores that bleed easily or never heal
- A hard mass or lump
Let your dentist know if you are experiencing any non-visible signs of oral cancer such as numbness, pain, a change in your mouth bite, or experience any problems moving your mouth and jaw, speaking, swallowing, or chewing. This might sound like a lot, but this entire screening is usually done in less than 5 minutes.
What if You Show Signs of Oral Cancer?
If your dentist does find something out of the ordinary, they will not be able to diagnose you during your screening. Your dentist or hygienist will likely schedule a follow-up visit with you in 1-2 weeks or recommend you see another dentist for a second opinion because biopsy is the only way to diagnose oral cancer. Remember that not every lump or mass is cancerous. But in the event that it is, it’s important to catch it early on.
If after a second appointment or a second opinion, the identified area still looks troublesome, the next step will be to send a tissue sample to a lab to test if it is cancerous. If the test results come back positive, your dentist will discuss all possible treatment options and find the best one for you.