How do dentists screen for cancer?
During an oral cancer screening, our dentists palpate important structures in the head and neck, assessing if these tissues feel normal or if there are lumps or irregular tissue changes. We also will examine the soft tissues of your mouth, especially the lips, back of the throat, cheek (buccal) mucosa, sides of the tongue, and floor of the mouth, looking for sores or discolored tissues.
In addition, our dentists utilize a handheld VELscope® to inspect the tissue of the mouth and tongue. The VELscope aids in finding tissue abnormalities, including cancer and pre-cancer. The VELscope emits a fluorescent blue light that causes the soft tissue of the mouth to naturally fluoresce. Healthy tissues fluoresce in distinct patterns when looking through the VELscope. Tissues look differently through the VELScope when they undergo a change or become precancerous.
The VELscope exam can be performed during a routine hygiene appointment in about two minutes, and does not require any dyes or prolonged testing procedures. It is used in conjunction with the physical head and neck exam, not in place of it.
Oral Cancer Screening with the VELScope
Oral cancer is the sixth most common cancer, accounting for nearly 5 percent of all cases. More than 51,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths, or about one every hour, according to the American Cancer Society 2018 statistics.
Oral cancer is particularly dangerous because it can go unnoticed in its preliminary stages. In many cases, however, dentists can detect changes in tissue appearance early, which makes the dental community the first line of defense against oral cancer.
What are its risk factors?
Risk factors for oral cancer include tobacco use, alcohol use, sun exposure (lips), a previous head and neck cancer diagnosis, and human papilloma virus (HPV) infection. HPV can cause cancer in the back of the throat (oropharyngeal cancer), including the base of the tongue and tonsils. About 79 million Americans are infected with HPV, with 14 million people estimated to become newly infected each year. It is possible that HPV vaccines might prevent oropharyngeal cancer. Source CDC, 2017
What are the warning signs of oral cancer?
Oral cancer typically is painless in its early stages but can become symptomatic as it progresses. Contact us immediately if you observe any of the following:
- Changes in the way your teeth fit together
- Dentures are not fitting over tissues anymore
- Oral sores that bleed easily or don’t heal within 2-3 weeks
- Lumps, thickening, rough spots, or crusty or eroded areas in your mouth
- Difficulty swallowing, chewing, speaking, or moving your jaw or tongue
How can I prevent oral cancer?
To help prevent oral cancer, abstain from using all forms of tobacco and avoid excessive sun exposure and alcohol consumption. You can also ask your doctor about the HPV vaccination. Successful treatment and rehabilitation of oral cancer is dependent on early detection, which makes it extremely important to maintain regular dental visits. An oral cancer screening is a service we provide to all patients and part of our routine dental exam, even when you have no symptoms, and does not mean that we think you may have oral cancer.