What can I expect from an oral cancer screening at the dentist?

Coming in to see the dentist isn’t only for your smile. It’s an important opportunity for screening your overall oral health—and this means performing an oral cancer screening.

The idea of an oral cancer screening might seem a little daunting if you don’t know what to expect. In this article, we’re breaking down exactly what you need to know about oral screenings, and why they’re important.

What is an oral cancer exam?

An oral cancer exam is a quick and easy exam that happens when you see your Lakewood, Colorado dentist for one of your yearly check ups. The exam should take less than a few minutes. Your dentist will check for signs and symptoms of oral cancer as well as educate you on some of the warning signs to look out for.

The goal is identify if anything looks unusual about the mucosa, or pink parts, inside your mouth and look for lumps and spots. If you ever notice any of these things yourself, give your dentist a call. If you wear dentures, you’ll have to take them out for the exam. 

Who does oral cancer impact?

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, “mouth cancers will be newly diagnosed in about 145 new individuals each day in the US alone, and a person dies from oral cancer every hour of every day. If you add the head and neck subcategory of laryngeal throat cancers, the rates of occurrence (about 12,000 additional new cases per year) and death are significantly higher. When found at early stages of development, oral cancers can have an 80 to 90 % survival rate.”

Oral cancer usually occurs in people over the age of 45 but can develop at any age. We are seeing oral cancer much younger now, and many oral cancers can be in people who don’t even have a history of drinking and smoking!  We are seeing it very commonly affiliated with the human papillomavirus, or HPV.  HPV can cause six types of cancers and affects 79 million people in the United States…many don’t even know they have it!  This is why we screen for oral cancer.  

What to expect during your exam

There are multiple levels of an oral cancer screening. Your dentist is most likely to give you a basic exam that includes a thorough look at all parts of your mouth like: your mouth, gums, tongue, inside of your cheeks, the roof of your mouth, and the back of your throat.

During your exam, your dentist will check: 

  • Your face, neck, lips, and mouth to look for signs of cancer
  • The area under your jaw and the side of your neck, checking for lumps that may suggest cancer
  • The insides of your lips and cheeks to check for possible signs of cancer, such as red and/or white patches
  • All sides of your tongue 
  • For lumps or sensitivity by putting one finger on the floor of your mouth with the other hand under your chin and gently press down

What to expect after your exam

When your exam is over, your Lakewood dentist will discuss with you their findings. If something that looks abnormal is found, you’ll be referred to an oral surgeon or other oncology specialist for further examination. 

It’s important to remember that if something looks abnormal to your dentist, it doesn’t mean you have oral cancer—it means that further testing needs to be done to figure out what the abnormality is. It’s also very important to follow through on going to see your doctor if you are referred by your dentist!

If you have questions about any abnormalities or you’d like to get a screen done, Dr. Liz would be happy to answer all of your questions and address any concerns! Book your appointment for your yearly check up online today or call us at (303) 732-8909.

To learn more about our general dentistry services at our Lakewood, CO dental clinic, visit this page here.

About the Author

Dr. Elizabeth Turner is a whole-health, family dentist in Lakewood, CO who provides general, restorative, and cosmetic dental care. She focuses on the mouth-body connection and helps her patients smile confidently, breathe clearer, and live healthier lives. 

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