Maria Iavarone, RDH
What is your Dental Hygienist or Dentist looking for when they do an oral cancer screening?
Cancer is defined as the uncontrollable growth of abnormal cells that invade and cause damage to the surrounding tissue. Oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancers start in the mouth and the throat. Oral cancer comes in many forms and there are several different types of oral cancer. As a dental hygienist, we are not only cleaning teeth, but we are also checking for any abnormalities in the mouth and the surrounding areas. The dentist also screens for oral cancer when they come in to do the examination. A dentist cannot diagnose oral cancer, but screening for oral cancer is a crucial part of their job. The dentist will address any suspicious-looking areas. If a suspicious lesion is found, the dentist may request to reexamine you in about 1-2 weeks if the area looks like it could possibly heal. However, they may refer you to a specialist for further evaluation and to have a biopsy done. The biopsy is necessary to confirm that the lesion is actually cancerous. It’s estimated that approximately 51,540 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer and cancers of the throat, tonsils and back of the tongue this year (ADA, 2018).
Visual Oral Cancer Screening
With our visual oral cancer screening we typically have you stick out your tongue as far as you can so we can inspect the back of the throat and the back of the tongue. We will check the lateral borders of the tongue, as well as, underneath the tongue and the floor of the mouth. We will also look at and palpate the inner lining of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth, the gums and around the lips, feeling for any irregularities. We will then feel around the neck and under the jaw for any lumps or enlarged lymph nodes.
Advanced Oral Cancer Screening
We can also do a more advanced oral cancer screening in the dental office using fluorescence technology. Fluorescence technology can detect cancerous or precancerous lesions that may not be noticeable to the naked eye. Your dentist may have the VELscope or Identafi 3000 in their office. These tools allow for distinction between normal and abnormal tissue. Under these lights abnormal tissue will appear dark brown or black and normal tissue will appear green or blue dependent upon which fluorescence-based technique your dentist is using. Having an exam done with fluorescence-based technology can help with early detection, which in turn can increase your survival rate.
What we are looking for when we do a visual oral cancer screening?
-Any red or white patches
-A sore that does not heal or bleeds easily
-A lump or a thick or hard spot
-A roughened or crusted area
Some other symptoms of oral cancer that should be shared with your dental professional:
-Pain while swallowing or chewing
-Difficulty swallowing or chewing
-Jaw pain or stiffness
-Loose teeth for no apparent reason
-Changes in the way your teeth fit together
-A sore throat that won’t go away
-A feeling like there is something stuck in your throat
You may be at increased risk of developing oral cancer if you:
-Use or have used tobacco products
-Consume alcohol heavily
-Are exposed to sunlight on a regular basis for a prolonged amount of time
-Have poor nutrition, having a diet low in fruits and vegetables
-Stop using tobacco products
-Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all
-Wear UV protection
-Eat a healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables
-Inspect your own mouth for sores on a regular basis
-See your dentist regularly for check ups
-Do an advanced oral cancer screening with your dentist
Inspecting your own mouth for lumps or sores is a great way to be proactive. Schedule an exam with your dental office as soon as possible if you are concerned. Even with inspecting your own mouth, some cancers can be difficult to see on your own. Most cancers are found at a late stage which lowers the survival rate. It is important to see your dental hygienist and dentist for regular continuing care every 3-6 months, not only for good oral health, but to be monitored for oral cancer as well. Early detection is key. Ask your dental professional to perform an oral cancer exam and about using fluorescence technology to detect early signs of cancer.
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