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Understanding the Importance of Oral Cancer Screenings

April may be Oral Cancer Awareness Month, but getting an oral cancer screening is always a good idea, no matter what time of year it is, how old you are, or the current condition of your oral health. Oral cancer screenings can be done at any age and they’re a quick, painless way to catch potentially cancerous oral issues early when they are much easier to treat. Even if you don’t smoke or participate in other activities that could increase your risk of oral cancer, some people have a genetic predisposition to developing cancer in the mouth and throat region.

Because screening for oral cancer is so important–and can be done fairly easily–most dentists make it a part of routine dental exams and cleanings. 

“Head and neck cancers affect over 54,000 people per year, killing approximately one person per hour,” says Kristen Campbell, DDS, of Norman Smile Center. “With such alarming statistics, early detection is key.”

Oral screenings done twice a year may only take a few minutes, Dr. Campbell explains, but they could end up saving someone’s life.

For more than 30 years, Drs. Campbell, Sparks, and the team at Norman Smile Center have been providing exceptional dental care to adult and pediatric patients in and around the Norman area. During those years, Dr. Campbell has had several patients with aggressive, asymptomatic head and neck cancers that were identified through routine exams. Through early detection from her oral cancer screenings, Dr. Campbell’s patients were able to be treated for cancers that would have otherwise eventually resulted in death.

Understanding Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is an umbrella term that refers to any of a number of potential malignancies that can develop in the mouth, usually starting in the inner linings of the cheeks, on the tongue, or on the roof and floor of the mouth. Men are twice as likely as women to get oral cancer, with a lifetime risk of about 1 in 60. In nearly all instances–around 90%–these growths will be squamous cell carcinomas, but adenocarcinomas that begin in the salivary glands can also occur. 

With regular screenings, however, oral cancers can be caught very early, when treatment is much more effective. Like many cancers, early detection is critical for oral cancer, because the earlier treatment begins, the less intense and invasive it needs to be. People who catch cancer early experience higher rates of treatment success and a better prognosis.

Oral Cancer Risk Factors

While some people are genetically more prone to developing oral cancer, much of the risk comes from lifestyle choices, with people who use tobacco products or drink excessive alcohol at the greatest risk. 

Most people who do not use tobacco products or who are not at an otherwise elevated risk for oral cancer don’t need to be screened more often than every three years until the age of 40. After that, a screening every year is recommended. If your lifestyle predisposes you to oral cancer due to smoking, drinking, or other habits, you could benefit from at least an annual screening at one of your routine cleaning visits, regardless of your age.

Early Symptoms of Oral Cancer

The first signs of oral cancer are small and often unnoticeable to the untrained eye, which is why professional screening from a licensed dentist is so important. You may see small white bumps in your mouth or areas of redness and irritation, almost as if you had accidentally bitten your cheek or tongue. If these areas don’t heal, or if you experience pain in your mouth, growing lumps, pain when swallowing, or teeth that are loosening in their sockets, schedule an appointment for a screening immediately. 

The Oral Cancer Screening Process

An oral cancer screening begins with a conversation with your dentist. They will help you understand if anything about your lifestyle or family history may contribute to an increased risk of cancer, as well as what you can do to reduce that risk. Then, they will begin a physical examination.

The first step is usually a visual check. The dentist will look at the interior surfaces of your mouth, like your cheeks, gums, and tongue to identify any potentially problematic areas or sores. Then, they will use gloved hands to feel some of your mouth surfaces. They might gently pinch your cheek between their fingers, for example. This is to check for bumps or other changes in texture that are not a normal part of your oral cavity.

Once this step is complete, the dentist will spend some time massaging the tissues of your outer face and neck. Oral cancer can start in the throat and by the ears as well, so checking for lumps in these areas is a regular part of the process. Oral cancers caused by HPV, for example, tend to start in places like the lymph nodes.

These visual and physical exams are the easiest and most available methods for oral cancer screenings, says Dr. Campbell. She uses cutting-edge technology for optimal magnification and proper lighting, and communicates with her patients to see if they have noticed anything new or unusual. During the exam, Dr. Campbell also likes to explain to her patients what she is doing and why, including what she is looking for. She often pairs her exams with routine x-rays or 3D Cone Beam Computed Tomography (CBCT) images to help her patient better understand what she is evaluating. If there is a suspicious finding, she will discuss her initial diagnosis with you and refer you to an oral pathologist if necessary.

Oral Cancer Screenings and Your Overall Health

For dentists like Dr. Campbell, oral cancer screenings are a vital part of complete, comprehensive oral care and are included in routine dental exams and fees. When patients forego regular dental care–whether out of fear, financial constraints, access to care, or lack of education–they often miss out on important information and early cancer detection. 

While oral cancer is one of the most serious oral health conditions, other problems like cavities or changes in gum health that go untreated can become just as detrimental to your health. With just two exams and cleanings twice a year and x-rays once a year, you can preserve and protect your health today and prevent more serious and costly problems in the future.

No matter what’s keeping you from getting the dental care you need, Dr. Campbell says most dentists are ready and eager to help with information on insurance, flexible financing, and affordable membership plans, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Protect Your Health with Oral Cancer Screenings from Norman Smile Center

At Norman Smile Center, Drs. Kristen Campbell, Donna Sparks, and their team are committed to helping you achieve your optimal oral health with comprehensive dental care services like oral cancer screenings. We strive to stay at the forefront of the latest advancements in oral cancer detection and prevention through continuing education and forums, and we are constantly improving our protocols and procedures with cutting-edge technology like CBCT imaging.

If you or a loved one are at risk for developing oral cancer, or would simply like a baseline exam, contact Norman Smile Center today to schedule an appointment. Just a few minutes twice a year could be enough to save your life or the life of someone you love.