The Importance of Oral Cancer Screenings

The Importance of Oral Cancer Screenings

Every year, at least 54,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer in the US alone. Fortunately, like many other types of cancer, the survival rate for oral cancer is very high if it’s caught and treated early on before it spreads to nearby tissues, organs, and lymph nodes.

Oral cancer screenings are designed to spot early symptoms and give you a jump start on treatment, significantly reducing the risks of complications.

What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer, also known commonly as mouth cancer, is a broad term that refers to cancer that forms in the oral cavity. 

Oral cancer typically occurs between the vermilion border of the lips and the junction of the hard and soft palates or the posterior one-third of the tongue.

When a person contracts mouth cancer, a tumor starts to form in one of these areas inside the mouth, and symptoms begin to present themselves (more on those below).

Common Types of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is generally separated into three subtypes: lip cancer, gum and jaw cancer, and tongue cancer.

An oral cancer diagnosis specifies cancer as one of the subtypes above, depending on where the cancerous cells are growing in a patient’s mouth.

It’s important to note that any oral cancer can spread to nearby areas. So, if an individual has tongue cancer and is not caught and treated, it could potentially spread into the gums, jaw, or lips. This is why an oral cancer screening is so important.

Stages of Oral Cancer

There are five stages of oral cancer labeled with the Roman numerals I to V, with stage I being the earliest and stage V being the latest. Symptoms of cancer in the oral cavity can be similar for all stages, but are typically more severe in the later stages.

Early symptoms of oral cancer can include some or all of the following:

  • Lip or mouth sore that fails to heal
  • White or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
  • Noticeable growth or lump inside your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Mouth and/or ear pain
  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing

Because these symptoms are very noticeable in most people, oral cancer is relatively easy to diagnose early on. Signs of mouth cancer can often be spotted during a routine dentist visit, but an oral cancer screening is the best way to diagnose the disease.

If you are experiencing any early symptoms of oral cancer mentioned above, don’t hesitate to schedule a screening with your dentist as soon as possible. A dentist can tell the difference between oral cancer and other common conditions.

When mouth cancer is not spotted and treated early on, it progresses into the later, more severe stages, which can even lead to death.

During the late stages of oral cancer, the original tumor may be several centimeters in diameter, and the cancer may have spread to nearby areas, such as the lymph nodes. 

When mouth cancer progresses this far, the symptoms, such as pain, are typically much heavier. Patients with late-stage oral cancer often have difficulty chewing, swallowing, talking, and even opening their mouths.

How Is Oral Cancer Treated?

No matter what stage oral cancer is in, the most common treatment is surgery. This surgery aims to remove the cancerous cells, or tumors, from the mouth. 

Depending on where the cancer is and how prominent the surgery is, patients may need to get tissue, bone, or muscle reconstructed after the cancer is removed.

Although less common than surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are also sometimes used to treat mouth cancer.

Preventing Oral Cancer

Anyone can get oral cancer, but there are risk factors that lead to a higher possibility of contracting the disease. 

These risk factors include tobacco use (of any type), heavy alcohol use, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, excessive sun exposure to the lips, and old age. Males are also more likely than females to get oral cancer.

As such, you should follow these tips to help reduce your risk of oral cancer:

  1. Stop using tobacco (or don’t start)
  2. Drink alcohol in moderation (or not at all)
  3. Protect your lips when you go out in the sun for extended periods
  4. Go to the dentist regularly

Oral Cancer Screening Process

An oral cancer screening is nothing to be nervous about. You don’t need to do anything to prepare, and a screening for oral cancer can usually be paired with a routine dental checkup and cleaning.

When you go for a screening, your dentist will examine your mouth thoroughly and look for signs of cancer, especially unusual sores, and growths. 

The dentist will use a combination of a visual inspection, palpitation (feeling for lumps), and sometimes special oral cancer dyes and lights that can help identify abnormal tissues and lesions.

X-rays are also sometimes used during a screening, as they can be especially helpful for spotting jaw cancer.

Your dentist will also ask questions about your lifestyle and risk factors to determine your risk of oral cancer and provide recommendations to help prevent it.

What Happens If You Have Signs of Oral Cancer?

If your dentist notices any suspected symptoms of oral cancer and has ruled out other potential causes, they will send you to an oncologist (cancer doctor) for further testing and an official diagnosis.

The oncologist will collect suspicious cells from your mouth and submit them for laboratory testing to verify whether or not they are cancerous.

If it’s determined that you have some type of oral cancer, you can then proceed with treatment to manage the symptoms and remove all cancerous cells from your mouth via surgery or another of the options we mentioned earlier.

Oral Cancer Screening in Erie, PA

Dr. Lee Simon and his professional staff provide free oral cancer screenings in Erie, PA. We understand the seriousness of oral cancer and want to help as many patients as possible identify an issue if it arises. Schedule an appointment with us today to ensure optimal oral health! 

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