What Happens During an Oral Cancer Screening?

In 2021, an estimated 54,000 adults will be diagnosed with oral (mouth) and oropharyngeal (throat) cancer. That number makes it the twelfth most common type of cancer in the United States.

Like most types of cancer, oral cancer can be cured when it’s caught at an early stage. That’s why Linda Kay Nichols, DMD, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, routinely performs oral cancer screening.

A comprehensive oral cancer screening includes three parts: talking with you about your overall health and risk factors, a visual examination, and a tactile examination. Below, Dr. Nichols shares more about what to expect during an oral cancer screening.

Risk assessment for oral cancer

Before starting your exam, we update your medical history and talk about any symptoms you have. It’s important to talk with us about any problems inside your mouth, even if it has already cleared up.

We ask about symptoms that are red flags for oral cancer even though they could arise from many different conditions. 

These symptoms include:

Then we talk with you about tobacco, alcohol, and the human papillomavirus (HPV), which are the top risk factors for oral cancer.

Using tobacco

It turns out that 85% of oral cancers are associated with using tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and chewing tobacco. Tobacco from any source is packed with substances proven to cause cancer.

Smoking a pipe especially increases your risk of developing cancer in your lips. If you use chewing tobacco, you have double the risk of cancer in your gums, cheeks, and inner lip.

Drinking alcohol

Your chances of developing oral cancer go up if you’re a frequent or heavy drinker. Alcohol metabolizes into a substance that interferes with DNA repair. This opens the door to DNA changes that lead to cancer.

History of HPV infection

HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection, causes several types of cancer, including oropharyngeal cancer. Oropharyngeal cancer develops at the back of your throat and may affect your tonsils or the base of your tongue. If you have an HPV vaccine before being exposed to HPV, you’re protected from this type of cancer.

Visual examination

We visually examine your lips and all the soft tissues inside your mouth, from your tongue and cheeks to the back of your throat. Using a light and a mirror, we look for sores or ulcers, inflammation and swelling, and any lesion that looks different from healthy mouth tissues.

The visual exam is a key component of your screening because the three earliest signs of oral cancer are visible:

We may use a gauze to hold your tongue and gently move it around so we can see the sides and underneath it. By pulling the tongue forward we can examine the parts of your throat that are normally blocked by your tongue.

Tactile examination

During this part of your oral cancer screening, we use our hands and fingers to feel for abnormal nodules, masses, or thick tissues. The lumps associated with oral cancer aren’t painful, and in the early stages they’re small, so you may not notice them. 

Additionally, thick tissues and small lumps may blend in with normal tissues. The only way we can find them is through a tactile exam and feeling your neck, face, lips, tongue, cheeks, under your chin, and all the areas inside your mouth.

If we find any area that’s suspicious, we may use special dyes or lights that help us detect abnormal cells. Then we remove the lumps or take biopsies and send them to a lab to determine if cancer cells are present.

If you notice any worrisome symptoms or you would like to schedule an oral cancer screening, call Linda Kay Nichols, DMD, or book an appointment online today.

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