Procedures

Oral Cancer Screenings

What should I know about oral cancer?
There are over 34,000 cases of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx each year in the United States, resulting in approximately 8,000 deaths annually. The majority of these cancers are diagnosed at a late stage, making treatment more difficult. Early diagnosis and treatment can make a significant difference in survival rates for this type of cancer. While people with a history of alcohol and tobacco use have an increased risk of developing oral cancer, 1 out of 4 cancers are detected in patients who do not drink or smoke. It is highly recommended that everyone, regardless of history, should be screened at least once a year.

What should I expect when I receive an oral cancer exam?
Your regular dental checkup is the perfect time for an oral cancer exam. It takes only a few minutes, and is completely painless.

If you have dentures (plates) or partials, you will be asked to remove them so the dentist has clear access to the soft tissue areas of the mouth. Your dentist will visually inspect your face, neck, lips, and mouth to look for signs such as sores, asymmetry, or swelling. With both hands, the dentist will check for lumps in the area under your jaw and the side of your neck. Then, he or she will both look at and feel the insides of your lips and cheeks for signs of cancer such as red and/or white patches.

You will be asked to stick out your tongue so that your dentist can check for abnormal color, texture, or swelling. Your dentist will use gauze to pull your tongue from side to side to check the base and underside. A common location for oral cancer to occur is the base of the tongue where it begins to curve down the throat. Pulling the tongue helps the dentist to see this area more clearly.

Your dentist will look at the roof and floor of your mouth and the back of your throat. The final step is for the dentist to check for lumps or sensitivity by putting one finger on the floor of your mouth and gently pressing under your chin with the other hand.

Any of these symptoms alone are not always indicative of cancer, but they will help your dentist determine whether or not additional diagnostic procedures or specialist recommendations are necessary.