Oral cancer accounts for nearly 3% of all cancer cases in the United States. With a five-year survival rate as low as 60%, it is surprising that less than 1/4 of those who visit a dentist regularly report having had an oral cancer screening. Early diagnosis is the key to prevention and stopping the spread of this disease.
Risk Factors and Symptoms
While tobacco and alcohol users age 50 and up have the greatest risk of developing oral cancer, cases are becoming more widespread among young people who do not drink or smoke, because of the spread of the human papillomavirus which contributes to cancer of the oral cavity. Men are also twice as likely to develop oral cancer as women.
Symptoms you should watch out for include:
- Sores that bleed easily or do not heal
- Color changes to oral tissue
- Red or white patches
- Discomfort (such as pain or tenderness) in the mouth or on the lips
- A hard time chewing, swallowing, or speaking
- Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
Who Should Get Screened?
The answer to this one is easy: everyone should get screened. Every day, 100 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed in the United States, and one person dies from it every hour. When caught early, your chances of survival increase by at least 20%.
Even if you are not part of a group at risk for cancer (and especially if you are part of those high risk groups), a screening is easy enough to incorporate into your exam, and will be more than worth it should we find any pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions. We do more than just look around your mouth: we examine your face, neck, lips, mouth, and tongue, as well as your thyroid gland, salivary glands, and lymph nodes, feeling for any abnormalities and referring you for further testing, if necessary. An oral cancer screen is painless, and new technologies are making it possible for us to better asses your health. When incorporated into your dental exam, an oral cancer screen is inexpensive, requiring no extra expenses, unless follow ups are needed.
There are more than 100,000 dentists in the United States. If each one screened his or her patients for oral cancer, a majority of cases would be caught in their early stages. It is time we approach oral cancer screenings as necessary procedures the way we do annual mammograms and prostate exams, ensuring easily preventable diseases are stopped before they can do much damage. Next time you visit the dentist, be sure to request a cancer screening. You’ll be glad you did.