How Important are Oral Cancer Screenings?
With each professional cleaning and examination at Brown and Kupper DDS, both the hygienist and dentist perform a thorough oral cancer screening. There are certain markers or characteristics we look for, but the most important step is maintaining regular visits to give us the opportunity to identify any potential issues as early as possible. The earlier oral cancer is identified, the better the long term prognosis.
There is some debating over which method of screening is most useful. We have traditionally looked for unusual red patches, white patches, or mouth sores. Our hands are also a useful tool in finding any abnormal bumps or lumps. If an area of concern is found, we then decide if an immediate biopsy is necessary or if we should re-evaluate in 10-14 days. The decision depends on the severity of the area, the location, and the patient’s medical history. For example, if you have a history of oral cancer or if you have used tobacco products in the past, a referral to a specialist for a closer look is a good idea. The only definitive way to determine if you have oral cancer is to remove the abnormal cells and have them evaluated by an oral pathologist.
There is some new technology available involving swishing with blue dye or shining a special light on the tissue during an oral cancer exam. In theory, the abnormal cells will distinguish themselves visually and we can better detect potentially harmful areas. Unfortunately, most studies show it is no more effective than a traditional oral cancer exam. In fact, it results in a large number of ‘false positives’ in areas that are not abnormal. This then leads to unnecessary and invasive biopsies. Until the technology produces more predictable results, we will continue to use the same techniques in identifying potentially harmful areas.
If you have a history of using tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff), heavy alcohol use, or a history of oral cancer, you definitely need routine oral cancer screenings since you are at an increased risk. If you have no risk factors at all, it is still important to be checked at each visit just in case. Maintaining regular visits to the dentist is crucial in early detection, and an early diagnosis can improve your odds against oral cancer.