Nearly 46,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with some form of oral cancer each year. Sadly, just over half of people with oral cancer are still alive after 5 years, which makes early diagnosis vitally important.
Your dentist can play a huge role in helping to identify risk factors and signs of oral cancer. Here's how:
1. Conduct regular checkups.
You know you should visit your dentist every 6 months so your teeth can be cleaned and any decay caught right away, but it's also important so you can have a professional review of your oral health. Oral cancers often have no obvious symptoms that you as a patient can detect -- until it spreads and becomes much more difficult to control and eradicate.
There are a few things your dentist can look for that might be signs of oral cancer, including:
- Hard spots or lumps
- A sore that bleeds easily
- Red or white patches
- Rough or crusted spots
- Numbness or unusual tenderness
As a patient, it can be hard to find these things yourself, as they often come on gradually. As well, though you may brush and floss regularly, you probably don't check your own mouth with the right lighting and ability to see these issues.
2. Look for cancer cells.
It's true that cancer cells aren't visible to the naked eye, and no matter what sharp vision your dentist has, he or she can't see the beginnings of cancer. But new tools are changing that by helping dentists identify cancerous cells in the mouth.
If your dentist does identify a spot that looks worthy of further scrutiny, he or she can use ultraviolet (UV) auto-fluorescence technology to highlight that area. First, the dentist colors the area with a special, nontoxic stain. Then, he or she shines a special UV light over the spot. Cancer will abnormally alter glycol molecules in a cell, which will show up in such a test as a slightly glowing area.
3. Biopsy of suspicious cells.
Most dentists are likely to send you to an oncologist for further tests, but some are beginning to perform basic biopsies in their offices. As tools get better for quickly identifying cancerous cells, your dentist may take a small sample of cells from any suspicious area and test them under a microscope. The results can be sent to an oncologist for additional analysis.
Of course, if you suspect that you have a symptom of oral cancer, or you have a sore in your mouth that is not healing in a reasonable amount of time or other painful lesions, make an appointment for an oral health check with a qualified dentist or oncologist.