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5 Things You Need To Know About Oral Cancer Screenings

Cancer can develop anywhere inside your mouth, like on your tongue or on the roof of your mouth. It can be hard to get a good look inside your mouth, so you may not notice the changes in your mouth that can be signs of cancer. This is where your dentist comes in. Here are five things you need to know about oral cancer screenings. 

Who gets oral cancer?

Anyone can develop oral cancer, but it's more common in some groups of people than in others. It's more common in seniors; the average age of people diagnosed with oral cancer is 62. Men are about twice as likely to develop oral cancer than women are.

Age and gender aren't the only factors that affect your oral cancer risk. Behaviors like drinking alcohol or using tobacco are major risk factors for oral cancer. Human papilloma virus infection can also play a role in the development of cancers of the oral cavity. 

How common is oral cancer?

Oral cancer doesn't get as much attention as other types of cancers, but it's fairly common. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 39,500 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2015, and about 7,500 will die of oral cancer. Since it's so common, you need to be concerned about the possibility of developing this type of cancer. Fortunately, your dentist can help you detect oral cancer early through oral cancer screenings.

How are oral cancer screenings performed?

Oral cancer screenings are performed by your dentist during your regularly scheduled checkups. After checking your mouth for dental problems like cavities, your dentist will examine your mouth for signs of cancer. This process only takes about five minutes. Your dentist will check your lips, tongue, gums, the floor of your mouth, the roof of your mouth, and the insides of your cheeks. Your dentist will inspect these tissues visually for suspicious lesions and will also palpate them to look for lumps and bumps. You'll need to stick out your tongue so that your dentist can get a good look at the sides and bottom of your tongue.

If any suspicious tissues are found, your dentist will biopsy them to see if they are cancerous. If cancer is found, you will start treatment. Oral cancer, like other types of cancer, is more treatable when it's caught early, so your oral cancer screening could save your life.

How often should you be screened?

The American Dental Association recommends getting an oral cancer screening performed during each checkup with your dentist. As a general rule, you're supposed to have a dental checkup performed twice a year, but your dentist may recommend a different schedule. If you're part of a high risk group, like heavy drinkers or smokers, your dentist may want to see you more often.

What warning signs should you watch out for?

Oral cancer can develop between your scheduled dental visits, so you need to stay alert for changes in your mouth. Oral cancer can present as a sore that doesn't heal, so if you have a persistent canker sore, you should see your dentist. You may also notice a red or white patch inside your mouth, a lump, or a patch of thickened tissue. Loose teeth, a sore jaw, or a sore throat can also be warning signs of oral cancer.

If you notice any of these changes, you need to see your dentist right away. Don't wait until your next scheduled visit to bring up your concerns with your dentist.

Oral cancer is a serious concern, but your dentist can diagnose oral cancer early during regular screenings. If you don't remember the last time you saw your dentist, it's time to make an appointment for a checkup and an oral cancer screening.