We all know that visiting the dentist is good for our oral health, but did you know it’s good for your overall health too? By examining the oral cavity, dentists can quickly screen their patients for oral cancer. This may sound scary but is quick, painless, and worth doing.

What is Oral Cancer? 

Oral cancer falls under throat and neck cancers, and, as the name suggests, starts in the mouth. Once gotten, individuals can experience difficulty breathing, talking, eating, chewing, or swallowing. If caught early enough, oral cancer can successfully be treated. However, the death rate of oral cancer is quite high not because it’s hard to discover, but because it’s commonly found in later stages when the cancer is too developed to respond to treatment. The Canadian Cancer Society estimated that in 2016, 4,600 Canadians were diagnosed with oral cancer and 1,250 died from the disease.

Like many diseases, certain individuals are more prone to oral cancer than others. Patients over the age of 45 are more at risk of developing the disease. However, people younger than this are also developing cancer at a higher than normal rate. If you indulge in the bad habit of smoking or drinking excessively, your risk of oral cancer skyrockets. 75% of all oral, head and neck cancers are related to alcohol and tobacco use. Also at risk for developing oral cancer are individuals exposed to the sun for prolonged periods of time and those who have a poor diet. Other factors such as genetics and gender (males develop the disease more often than females) play a role too.

Oral Cancer Examinations by Dentists 

The dentistry environment is the first line of defence in the early detection of oral cancer. Patients should get an oral cancer examination annually. This examination is quick and can easily be completed during a regular check-up by a dentist or hygienist.

Before the examination can take place, the patient will be asked to remove dentures or partials if they have them. The dentist will then inspect your face, mouth, tongue, lips, and neck for any signs of the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results program, “30% of oral cancer originate in the tongue, 17% percent in the lip, and 14% in the floor of the mouth. Many other studies support this finding that oral cancers appear most often on the tongue and floor of the mouth.” Next, the dentist will feel under your jaw and your neck for any lumps. They’ll then go inside your mouth looking at both cheeks, all sides of your tongue, the floor and roof of your mouth, and your throat. Lastly, they’ll put one finger on the floor of your mouth and another on the bottom of your chin and gently press down to check for sensitivity and lumps.

The above steps are part of a normal oral cancer examination. Additional tests may be required if the dentist thinks they’re needed. In this instance, you may be asked to rinse your mouth with a special blue dye before the examination. If there are any abnormal cells present, they’ll absorb the dye and appear blue. Additionally, the dentist may also shine a light in your mouth to distinguish healthy tissue from abnormal tissue.

At the end of these examinations, if the dentist has found something abnormal, a follow-up appointment will be scheduled in two weeks. Regular sores and irritation will go away during this time. If abnormalities are still detected at the follow-up, x-rays may be taken, and a biopsy of the cells will be required to determine if they’re truly cancerous.

Related: The Truth About Mouth Ulcers or Mouth Sores

If caught in the early stages, oral cancer can be successfully treated, and the patient can return to their normal life. Early detection is crucial. Individuals should be tested annually during a regular check-up. A regular examination is relatively quick and can prevent deterioration of your overall health.