Anyone who has had an examination in our office can tell you that we do a really thorough oral cancer examination. But are you really at risk if you’re not a tobacco user? What if you quit smoking years ago? What if you’re really young? The reality is that 1 in 4 people with oral cancer have no history of tobacco use.
As far as age is concerned, non-smokers under the age of 50 are the fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population, according The Oral Cancer Foundation. The reason for this is attributed to the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). That’s right, the same sexually transmitted virus that young girls are currently being vaccinated against for causing cervical cancer can also cause oral cancer. There are many (120+) varieties of HPV that have been identified. 1 is linked with oral cancer. A few others can also cause benign oral lesions, although the virus will still be transmitted through these benign lesions, so they do need to be identified and removed.
Unfortunately, by the time many oral cancers are detected, they are quite advanced and have a poor survival rate. Early detection and treatment is the key a good prognosis.
So how often should an oral cancer screening be done, and what’s involved? Everybody should be screened at least once a year. For our denture wearing patients who do not require 6 month hygiene visits, we schedule them annually to do this screening. For the rest of our patients we actually do a screening twice a year.
When performing an oral cancer screening we first check outside of your mouth. We feel for enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, abnormalities in the thyroid, discolorations or growths on the lips as well as a general overview of the skin on the head and neck. When looking inside of the mouth all tissues are inspected thoroughly including the tonsil area of the throat. We look for any changes in color or texture as well as any areas of swelling.
Once a year our office also provides a tissue fluorescence screening with the Velscope screening device. We believe so strongly in doing the most thorough oral cancer screening possible that we provide this service at no additional cost although many offices charge an additional $60-$75 fee for this type of examination. For more information on the Velscope visit www.velscope.com.
What happens if we find an abnormality during your examination? Usually a biopsy will be necessary with an oral surgeon to determine exactly what it is. If a lymph node is felt, we’ll usually refer you to your physician for evaluation – especially if we don’t see anything out of place inside your mouth.
Occasionally traumatic lesions are found during examinations. Maybe you burned your palate with a hot slice of pizza or bit your tongue. If we suspect trauma, we bring you back for a 2 week follow up: plenty of time to heal. If it is still present, then we refer to a specialist for a biopsy. Limiting your exposure to tobacco, alcohol and risky sexual behaviors can lower your risk of oral cancer significantly. But everyone still needs to have a proper oral cancer screening at least once a year. For more information about oral cancer visit www.oralcancerfoundation.org.