What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is the largest group of head and neck cancers. One person dies per hour from oral cancer. When not detected and treated in the early stages, it can be a fatal condition. Oral cancer can begin in any region of the mouth, including the lips, tongue, cheeks, gums, and more. While it begins in the mouth, it can spread to other regions of your body. Early detection is essential for diagnosing oral cancer and providing you with the treatment you need. An oral cancer screening is done during your routine oral exams with your check up appointment.

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

There are several known factors that can increase your risk of developing oral cancer. These risk factors include:

  • Lifestyle habits: Tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption can both significantly increase your risk. Approximately 90% of oral cancer patients have been smokers or smokeless tobacco users. Between 70 and 80% of oral cancer patients have used alcohol.
  • Family history. If a close blood relative has had oral cancer, you are at an increased risk.
  • HPV. There are many strains of HPV. Only a handful have shown to have a connection with oral cancer, with HPV16 having the strongest link.
  • Your age. Older adults, those over the age of 55, are at an increased risk. Additionally, males are at a greater risk than females.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

There are several different symptoms that can point toward oral cancer. 

Symptoms include:

  • New or unusual growths on your intraoral tissues.
  • Red or white patches.
  • Sores that do not seem to want to heal, particularly those that do not heal even after a couple of weeks.
  • A noticeable change in your bite or in the way your dentures fit.
  • A numb sensation in your chin or jaw.
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing.

Any sore, discoloration, growth, irritation or hoarseness, which does not resolve within a two week period on its own, with or without treatment, should be considered suspect and worthy of further examination or biopsy. Besides a routine visit to the dental office for regular examinations, it is the patient’s responsibility to be aware of changes in their oral environment. When these changes occur, they need to be brought to the attention of a qualified dental professional for examination.

Using VELscope to Detect Oral Cancer

In addition to a visual examination of your intraoral tissues, we will also manually palpate your tongue, floor of your mouth, cheeks and the lymph nodes surrounding your oral cavity and in your neck. VELscope is an additional, non-invasive, screening tool. The device emits a harmless light that can show us the presence of potentially cancerous and precancerous tissues.

The VELscope emits a harmless blue light that shines into your mouth. Looking through a specialized lens, we examine your tissues. Healthy tissue appears green (fluoresces) through the lens. Precancerous and cancerous tissues, however, absorb the light and appear dark. Soft tissue that has been traumatized from hot foods/drinks, biting or other trauma will also cause tissue to appear dark under the VELscope.

Regular dental exams are not only important for detecting cavities and gum disease, but for detecting the early warning signs of oral cancer. By detecting oral cancer early, we can help you get the treatment you need to restore the health of your mouth. Early detection and treatment can even save your life. For more information on VELscope, and to schedule your next dental exam, call Mettler & Griego Family Dentistry at 623-487-4870 today.

For additional information on oral cancer, go to: oralcancerfoundation.org