Oral cancer is serious business. If you need convincing, here are the facts:
- 49,750 Americans will be diagnosed with oral oropharyngeal cancer this year
- Of those 49,750 Americans, only 57% will live longer than five years
- 9,750 Americans will die as a result of oral cancer this year; roughly one person per hour, 24 hours a day
Historically, the death rate of oropharyngeal cancer is so high not because of difficulty in discovery or diagnosis, but because the cancer is routinely discovered late into its development. Scheduling an oral cancer screening alongside your regular dentist visits is never a bad idea: to have the highest chance of surviving, you’ll need to catch the cancer as early in its development as possible.
In particular you may want to consider an oral cancer screening if you’re:
- A tobacco user of any kind—this includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff among others
- A heavy alcohol user
- If you’ve ever previously been diagnosed with oral cancer
- If you have a history of significant exposure to the sun, e.g. if you work for long periods of time outdoors
These risks can be mitigated, of course: you can cease or reduce tobacco and alcohol usage, and if you work outdoors you can regularly and properly apply sunscreen to avoid damage from exposure to UV rays.
There are some drawbacks when it comes to oral cancer screenings, however. For example, an oral exam is insufficient for detecting some types of mouth cancer, and it can often be impossible to tell whether or not an unidentified lesion in your mouth is cancerous or not.
The procedure is simple enough: your dentist, during the course of a routine oral examination, will use gloved fingers to probe at the flesh inside of your mouth to search for lumps or other irregularities, as well as examining your mouth with a flashlight in an attempt to detect any discolorations or visible abnormalities that could indicate cancerous cell growth.
Whether or not you suspect that you may have oral cancer, it costs you nothing to set up an oral exam during your routine dental work—and if cancerous cells are caught and treated earlier enough, your chances of remission and survival are significantly higher.