What’s Behind That Dreaded Oral Cancer Check?
No one likes to hear the word ‘cancer’ much less think about it. Would it make you feel better to know that a simple, painless exam at your dentist’s office can detect oral cancers at an early stage, when the treatments are relatively easier and survival rates are good? We thought so.
At Bite Dental Studios, we plan our time on every examination visit to do a thorough check for oral cancer. This may not be the most dignified procedure in the world (especially when we grab your tongue with a piece of gauze and yank it around) but it’s simple, safe and can be life-saving.
Who’s at Risk for Oral Cancer?
While we can’t predict whether one person will develop oral cancer and another will not, there are recognized risk factors for this disease. At the top of the list are tobacco (including ‘smokeless’ chewing tobaccos and snuff) and alcohol use. The risk for oral cancer increases with the amount of use. People who use tobacco and drink heavily have the greatest risk. Overall, use of tobacco, alcohol or both accounts for three out of every four oral cancers. In tropical areas of south and southeast Asia, including Australia, the tradition and practice of chewing the areca, or ‘betel’ nut is yet another risk factor.
Exposure to sun can increase risk for cancers on the lip, although this risk can easily reduced by use of sunscreen and wearing a shady hat. Some studies indicate that a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables can increase your oral cancer risk. Research is also going on to determine whether certain infectious agents such as human papillomavirus are implicated in oral cancer.
In Australia, these risk factors add up to approximately 2,500 new cases of oral cancer being identified each year. The prevalence is higher among men than woman – about 1/100 men versus 1/200 women will be diagnosed with oral cancer at some point in their lives. As with other developing countries in the world, Australia’s incidence of oral cancer has increased in recent years.
Early Signs of Oral Cancer
You may be your own best early warning system for detection of oral cancer. Yes, the regular screening as part of your dental exam is important, but if you notice certain changes in your mouth area, don’t wait to get it checked out. Please contact your dentist or medical doctor for further consultation if you notice any of these symptoms:
• Any mouth sore or lesion that does not heal within two weeks.
• Lumps or thickened areas in the cheek.
• Discoloured (red or white) patches in the mouth.
• Difficulty with chewing, swallowing or moving the tongue.
• Numbness in your tongue or mouth.
• Chronic hoarseness, sore throat or a feeling that something in caught in your throat.
• Swelling in the jaw; denture wearers might notice that the dentures don’t fit or become uncomfortable.
Any of these symptoms, of course, could well be caused by something benign and unrelated to cancer. But since early detection is so crucial to a good outcome with this disease, it’s best to get these symptoms checked out sooner rather than later. That’s also why we are so stuck on checking you thoroughly at your regular examinations.
Now, About That Tongue-Yanking:
Because we are used to poking around in people’s mouths, dentists and dental hygienists have a unique advantage in performing screenings for oral cancer. A good oral cancer exam requires a hands-on approach, since the examiner uses both touch and sight to detect the lumps, bumps and sores are early signs of the disease. Here are the typical steps used in an oral cancer screening:
• First, you’ll need to remove any dentures or partials you may wearing.
• Next, your screener will visually check your face, neck, lips and mouth for any abnormalities. We are trained to look for even subtle signals, such as slurred speech or an asymmetry in the movements of the mouth.
• Your screener will use both hands to feel for lumps in the neck and the underside of your jaw.
• The next step is to look and feel inside the lips and cheek areas.
• You’ll be asked to stick out your tongue so it can be checked for any discoloration, swelling, sores or other abnormalities.
• Here comes the tongue-grab! Using a piece of gauze, your screener will pull your tongue out and around, so that the base, sides and underneath can be examined. Yes, we know this feels … weird. You can help yourself by letting your tongue go with the pull, and not fighting it.
• The roof and floor of your mouth will be scrutinized, along with the back of your throat.
• Finally, your screener will check for lumps or sensitivity in the floor of your mouth. This is done by putting a gloved finger under your tongue and the other hand beneath your chin, then gently pressing or palpating between their hands.
By now, you’re probably feeling thoroughly poked and prodded, just from reading this. However, this exam takes just 2 minutes or less and can make a big difference to the eventual outcome. Should any cancerous or pre-cancerous areas be detected, a biopsy will likely be recommended. This involves removing a small piece of the suspicious tissue and sending it a laboratory for identification. The aim is to use early detection and treatment to prevent big problems later on. At Bite Dental Studio, we are that vigilant about protecting your health.