With more than fifty thousand Americans predicted to be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer in 2019, dentists have become key players in cancer prevention and detection. The early detection of these types of cancer can result in a five-year survival rate of approximately eighty percent. However, the delayed detection of oral or oropharyngeal cancer can result in a five-year survival rate of only fifty percent. Statistics like these make regular visits to the dentist potentially lifesaving.

Oral Cancer vs. Oropharyngeal Cancer

Oral cancer is basically a cancer of the mouth. This designation usually includes the teeth, gums, tongue, and the roof and floor of the mouth as well as the inside lining of the cheeks and lips.

Oropharyngeal cancer occurs slightly beyond the mouth in the top part of the throat. This generally includes the back and side walls of the throat, the tonsils, the back part of the roof of the mouth, and even the bottom of the tongue.

Risk Factors for Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancers

While there is no formula that is absolute in its assessment of the likelihood of an individual getting an oral or oropharyngeal cancer diagnosis, there are a number of factors that could put an individual at risk. Some of these risk factors can include:

  • Smoking (cigarette, cigar, or pipe)
  • Dipping
  • Chewing
  • Snuffing
  • Using oral tobacco products
  • Drinking alcohol in excess
  • Getting older
  • Eating poorly
  • Getting too much sun (specifically on the lips)

Although several risk factors have been determined, currently scientists are unable to pinpoint a specific cause for these types of cancers.

Oral Cancer Prevention

While basic strategies such as limiting your risk factors by not smoking or using tobacco products, drinking too much alcohol, eating poorly, or getting too much sun can certainly be helpful, one of the most important yet often overlooked strategies is to enlist the help of a licensed dentist.

At an initial dentist appointment, patients are providing a baseline look at their mouth, teeth, tongue, gums, and surrounding areas. When a patient keeps regular biannual visits with that same office, dentists can compare the results of visual inspections as well as notes from previous appointments. Noticing a change in oral tissues can be one of the best ways to prevent oral cancer.

Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer Symptoms

As with many diseases, some symptoms of oral and oropharyngeal cancer may mimic that of other common conditions. So while it may be prudent to be aware of the potential symptoms of these cancers, if you see an oral abnormality present in between dental visits it may be a good idea to make an interim appointment.

Some of the more common symptoms of these types of cancer can include:

  • Persistent mouth sores or pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Feeling like something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the tongue or jaw
  • Jaw swelling or pain
  • A change in the cheeks such as thickening or a lump
  • A lump in the neck
  • An irregular patch on the tongue, gums, lining of the mouth, or tonsils
  • Loosening of teeth near the jaw

Some patients may experience several of these symptoms, one, or possibly even none. This gray area is one of the key reasons that patients should keep regular biannual dentist visits and interim appointments if any of the above symptoms are persistent.

How Dentists Can Help With Oral Cancer Detection

There are currently no set recommendations for routine oral and oropharyngeal cancer screenings. For this reason, patients are strongly encouraged to visit the dentist every six months for a regular checkup, perform regular self-examinations, and make interim dentist appointments as needed.

When doing a self-examination, look for signs of the above symptoms such as new and persistent lumps, sores, or changes in the oral cavity. If you find one or more possible indicators of oral cancer, it may be best to make an appointment with the dentist as soon as possible for a follow up.

During a regular dental appointment, dentists have several different ways to scan for and detect the presence of oral cancer. These may vary from dentist to dentist but in general can include:

  • Patient history. Dentists can learn a great deal from a patient’s recent dental history. In addition to evaluating the records from a patient’s last appointment, dentists may also ask about any specific oral issues the patient may have been experiencing.
  • Basic visual screening. After taking information from the patient, a dentist will typically do a thorough visual examination. This includes a closer look at the individual’s teeth, cheeks, tongue, and the roof and base of the mouth. It is common for patients to be asked to stick out their tongue so that dentists can check it for any abnormalities.
  • VELscope screening. Dentist offices utilizing modern technology may also do a screening via a VELscope device. This technology allows dentists to scan a patient’s mouth with a special blue light (which is not a UV light). Healthy areas of the mouth should fluoresce under the light, which can draw attention to the darker areas of tissue that could potentially be a cause for concern.

If after your next trip to the dentist you find they are not putting one or more of these procedures into regular practice, it may be time to consider a switch. These simple and relatively quick scans could aid with early detection and possibly save your life.

For some types of cancer such as oral and oropharyngeal, dentists can be on the front line of defense when it comes to prevention and early detection. Take control of your health today and make an appointment to have an oral health screening.