What is so Important About Oral Cancer Screenings?
Each time you visit our office for a professional cleaning and examination, both the hygienist and dentist perform an oral cancer screening. There are a number of different markers we look for during the exam, but the most important thing you can do is maintain regular visits to help us identify any issues as early as possible. The sooner oral cancer is identified, the better the odds are in treating the disease.
There is a lot of controversy and debate over which method of screening is most successful. Traditionally, we have looked for unusual areas of red patches, white patches, or mouth sores. We also examine the tissue with our hands to feel for any abnormal bumps or lumps. If any area of concern is identified, we must then determine if a biopsy is needed or if we should re-examine the area in 10-14 days. This decision is usually based off the severity of the area, the location, and the patient’s medical history. For example, if there is a history of oral cancer or if the patient has used tobacco products, we are more likely to refer to a specialist for a closer look. The only definitive way to tell if you have oral cancer is to remove the abnormal cells and have them checked with a biopsy.
Some newer technology has become available that involves rinsing with blue dye or shining a special light on the tissue during an oral cancer exam. In theory, the atypical cells will distinguish themselves using these devices and we can better detect potentially harmful areas. However, most studies reveal it is no more effective than a standard oral cancer exam. In fact, it results in a large number of ‘false positives’ in areas that are not abnormal. Until the technology produces better results, we will continue to use the same techniques in identifying potentially harmful areas.
If you have a history of tobacco use (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff), heavy alcohol use, or a history of oral cancer, you can greatly benefit from routine oral cancer screenings since you are at an increased risk. Maintaining regular visits to the dentist is crucial in early detection, and an early diagnosis can improve your odds against oral cancer.