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Oral Cancer Awareness: Role of Your Dentist and Self-Examinations

oral cancer awareness

Ever wonder why your dentist might ask you to stick out your tongue during a checkup? It’s not just to check for dental health but also to screen for oral cancer. Early detection of oral cancer significantly increases the effectiveness of treatment. Here’s what you need to know about oral cavity cancer, how smile dentist in San Jose check for it, and how you can detect it yourself.

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer, a type of head and neck cancer, occurs in the mouth or back of the throat. Each year, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with it. The average age at diagnosis is 64, and it’s twice as common in men as in women. Cancer cells can develop on various tissues and areas of your mouth and throat, including:

  • The lining of your mouth
  • The lining of your gums
  • On, under, and at the base of the tongue
  • The throat, at the back of the mouth

Detection of Oral Cancer

Regular dental visits include oral cancer screenings. Dentists or dental hygienists should examine you for signs of oral cancer during these routine checkups. Here’s how the screening process typically works according to the American Dental Association (ADA) guidelines:

Medical History

Your dentist may ask about any changes since your last visit. Mention anything unusual with your teeth or mouth, such as a persistent lump in your throat, unexplained ear pain, or a hoarse voice.

Visual Examination

The dentist will check your lips, cheek lining, gums, tongue, floor and roof of your mouth, throat, tonsils, and the base of your tongue. They’ll ask you to stick out your tongue and may move it around to inspect underneath and its sides. They’re looking for gray or white patches (leukoplakia) or flat or slightly raised red areas (erythroplakia).

Physical Examination

Some dentists will also feel your jaw and neck for any lumps.

Using Additional Tools

Some dentists use light-based devices designed to highlight potential cancers. However, the ADA has found insufficient evidence to recommend these tools universally.

The Importance of Cancer Screening

Oral cancer screenings aim to detect cancer early when it’s more treatable. While not enough research shows that screening reduces the risk of dying from oral cancer, screenings can catch lesions before they become cancerous. Early detection can significantly improve treatment outcomes. When detected early, the five-year survival rate for localized oral cancer is about 85%. This rate drops to 40% when the cancer has metastasized (spread to other body parts).

Routine Screening Practices

Whether you receive an oral cancer screening may depend on your dental office’s practices. A study found that only about 40% of people over age 30 were screened for oral cancer during their dental visits. Underserved populations and those with lower socioeconomic status were less likely to be examined.

What You Can Do

At your next dental appointment, ask if you will be screened for oral cancer. Anyone can develop oral cancer, so screening is essential for everyone, regardless of health history. However, certain risk factors increase the importance of screening:

  • Alcohol Consumption: Heavy drinkers are at greater risk.
  • Tobacco Use: Current or former smokers or users of other tobacco products are at higher risk.
  • Combined Alcohol and Tobacco Use: This combination further increases risk.
  • HPV: Human papillomavirus is a risk factor for throat cancer.

Self-Examination for Oral Cancer

While some cancers can’t be seen or felt, you may be able to spot signs of oral cancer at home. Here’s how to perform a self-examination using a mirror in a well-lit room:

  • Lips: Lift your upper lip and pull down your lower lip to check the inside.
  • Gums: Feel around your gums for lumps or lesions.
  • Cheeks: Pull your cheeks out to inspect the inside.
  • Tongue: Lift your tongue and check all around and underneath.

Look for gray or white patches, or flat or slightly raised red areas. If you find anything suspicious, contact your dentist for an examination. If your dentist identifies a concerning spot, they may perform an oral cancer biopsy, taking a tissue sample for testing and referring you to a specialist for further evaluation.

Early Signs of Oral Cancer

Early signs of oral cancer can appear in the mouth or around the face, including:

  • Numbness or swelling in the mouth
  • A sore, lump, or thickening on the lip or mouth that doesn’t heal
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving your jaw or tongue
  • White or red patch in the mouth

Other symptoms can appear elsewhere, such as:

  • Ear pain
  • Lump in the neck or back of the throat
  • Persistent mouth, jaw, or tooth pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Voice changes

If these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, see your doctor or dentist for an evaluation. These signs don’t necessarily mean cancer; they could be symptoms of other conditions.


Oral cancer starts in your mouth or back of the throat. Regular visual and physical screenings during dental checkups are crucial for your dental implant in san jose ca. You can also perform self-examinations between visits, especially if you’re at higher risk. Early detection can catch cancer in more treatable stages, significantly improving outcomes.

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