The National Cancer Institute estimates that about 40,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with mouth or throat cancer in 2012. About 8,000 people will die of the disease.
The oral cavity includes your lips, cheek lining, gums, front part of your tongue, floor of the mouth beneath the tongue and the hard palate that makes up the roof of your mouth. The throat (pharynx) starts at the soft part of the roof of your mouth and continues back into your throat. It includes the back section of your tongue as well as the base where the tongue attaches to the floor of your mouth.
During your dental visit, your dentist can talk to you about your health history and examine these areas for signs of mouth and/or throat cancer. Regular visits to your dentist can improve the chances that any suspicious changes in your oral health will be caught early, at a time when cancer can be treated more easily.
The symptoms of mouth or throat cancer can include:
sores that bleed easily or do not heal
a thick or hard spot or lump
a roughened or crusted area
numbness, pain or tenderness
a change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite down
Make sure to tell your dentist about any problems you have when chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue or jaw.
What is the best way to screen for oral cancer? Are special oral cancer screening tests better than an oral exam?
Most dentists perform an examination of your mouth during a routine dental visit to screen for oral cancer. Some dentists may use additional tests to aid in identifying areas of abnormal cells in your mouth. The goal with oral cancer screening is to identify cancer early, when there is a greater chance for a cure.
Screening for oral cancer isn’t without controversy, though. No single oral exam or oral cancer screening test is proven to reduce the risk of dying of oral cancer. Still, you and your dentist may decide that an oral exam or a special test is right for you based on your risk factors.
Oral exam for oral cancer screening
Most dentists recommend an oral exam during your routine dental visit to screen for oral cancer. During an oral exam, your dentist looks over the inside of your mouth to check for red or white patches or mouth sores. Using gloved hands, your dentist also feels the tissues in your mouth to check for lumps or other abnormalities.
Many people have abnormal sores in their mouths, with the great majority being noncancerous. An oral exam can’t determine which sores are cancerous and which are not. If your dentist finds an unusual sore, you may go through further testing to determine its cause. The only way to definitively determine whether you have oral cancer is to remove some abnormal cells and test them for cancer in a procedure called a biopsy.
Special tests for oral cancer screening aren’t always covered by dental insurance. Some tests may be covered if you have a high risk of oral cancer or if your dentist has discovered an area of abnormal cells in your mouth.
Who should consider oral cancer screening
People with a high risk of oral cancer may be more likely to benefit from oral cancer screening, though studies haven’t clearly proved that. Factors that can increase the risk of oral cancer include:
Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff, among others
Heavy alcohol use
Previous oral cancer diagnosis
Ask your dentist whether oral cancer screening is appropriate for you. Also ask about ways you can reduce your risk of oral cancer, such as quitting smoking and not drinking alcohol.