Diagnosing Oral Cancer
Oral cancer accounts for about 3.6 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States. The disease most commonly affects the sides of the tongue, floor of the mouth (under the tongue), soft palate, lips and gums.
Oral cancer will often appear as red, white or discolored patches or lumps, or as an ulcer that does not heal. Oral cancer tends to be more common in men than in women, and habits such as the consumption of alcohol, smoking or chewing tobacco, as well as prolonged exposure to sunlight have all been identified as significant risk factors. Although the early stages of oral cancer are usually painless, later cases can cause chronic pain, numbness, and the inability for the mouth to function normally. Sadly, oral cancer has only a 50 percent five-year survival rate.
An oral cancer screening is an important part of every dental examination, but potentially dangerous lesions can sometimes go unnoticed. The reason is that many oral lesions tend to look the same. Pizza burns, canker sores, fever blisters, lacerations, as well as oral cancer can all appear surprisingly similar.
When a dentist evaluates an oral lesion, he or she will ask the patient some questions regarding when and how it appeared, and will then wait about two weeks to see if it resolves. If the lesion has not partially or completely healed in two weeks, a biopsy is usually needed. If the dentist suspects oral cancer, it is often preferable to have a dental specialist, namely an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, to do the biopsy.
To perform a biopsy, the doctor numbs the area and then uses a scalpel to remove part or all of the suspicious lesion, and often some healthy tissue as well. The tissue sample is then sent to a lab where a pathologist evaluates it under a high-power microscope to aid in the diagnosis.
It is important to remember that oral cancer, and cancer in general, is far more likely to be cured if discovered early. You can protect yourself from oral cancer by limiting or eliminating alcohol, tobacco products and excessive exposure to sunlight. It’s a good idea to perform daily self-examinations of your mouth and visit your dentist at least twice a year for those all-important oral cancer screenings.