Oral Cancer Screenings At Smile Always Dental
Oral cancer screenings are singlehandedly the most important part of any dentist’s job and here at Smile Always Dental, we take oral cancer very seriously. It is one of the many ways we take amazing care of our patients in Parker, CO and provide optimal dental care.
Oral cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, or cancer of the head, neck and throat effects about 53,000 Americans per year and causes 9,750 deaths per year. That translates to about one person dying of oral cancer each and every hour of each and every day! Of the 53,000 individuals who will be newly diagnosed this year, only a little more than half will be alive in 5 years, or approximately 57%. This number has not significantly improved in decades.
What can we, as dentists, do to help? Well, dentistry is primarily a preventative branch of medicine and Dr. Jyothi truly believes in the power of prevention. A dentist should be giving you a very thorough oral, head, and neck exam at every preventative visit you have. This will include a very detailed palpation of all of your intraoral and extraoral lymph nodes, muscles of the head and neck, an evaluation of your TMJ, all teeth and all tissues and muscles inside of your mouth and neck. Your dentist should also inform you of the findings and let you know if the oral cancer check was negative, or did not find anything of concern, or if there are things they are watching and evaluating. Any non-healing lesion, or area of concern which does not heal on its own within two weeks, should be referred to a specialist, like Dr. Jyothi, for further evaluation.
The death toll for oral cancer is a lot higher than many other cancers which are prevalent, such as cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, laryngeal cancer, cancer of the testes, and endocrine system cancers, like thyroid cancer. One of the reasons for this public health issue is that oral cancers are very difficult to diagnose in earlier stages. Cancer starts as cellular changes at the base layer of the skin, called the “basement membrane”. This can happen outside of your mouth (like skin cancer) but it can also happen in the skin or tissue inside of your mouth, too. When these cellular changes occur, they will continue through various stages until they reach the surface of the skin, which is when the cancer becomes visible to the human eye. This is why is it very important for your dentist to look for these kinds of changes and try to catch them as early as possible. If the cellular changes are caught when they are a dysplasia, or changes underneath the surface of the skin, before they are a full-blown cancer, the 5-year survival rate DOUBLES!
Detecting Oral Cancer
Most of the time, oral cancer does not look or feel like anything to the patient until tissue changes are noticed in the third or fourth stage. So, no pain does not necessarily mean that you are healthy. Some signs and symptoms we tell patients to watch out for are as follows:
- Red or white discoloration of the oral tissue, especially on the borders of the tongue
- Any sore in the mouth that does not heal by itself in 2 weeks
- Hoarseness in the voice which lasts for a extended period of time
- The sensation that something is stuck in your throat
- Numbness, tingling or pain in an area of your mouth
- Difficulty in moving your jaw, limited opening or limited range of motion of the tongue
- Difficulty in swallowing or breathing – if this is happening, you must call 911 or go to the ER
- Ear pain which occurs on one side only
- A lump or thickening in the mouth or neck area
If you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms and are concerned, you can request an appointment with our doctor immediately.
Smile Always Dental does not like leaving your health to chance. Even when a dentist looks as thoroughly as possible, it is still very challenging to see tissue changes until they are a full-blown cancer and have reached the surface of the skin. This is where technology comes into play. We believe in using technology to serve our patients and protect their health as diligently as possible.
Dr. Jyothi at Smile Always Dental uses an advanced oral assessment system called the VELSCOPE®, which is a handheld scope we can use to potentially detect these changes sooner, including cancer and pre-cancer. This tool never replaces the traditional thorough eyes and hands exam your dentist should be using at every preventative visit, but it is an adjunctive device which allows us to have a second pair of eyes to see the same mouth twice. It is quick, completely painless, non-invasive and involves no dyes or prolonged testing; this makes VELscope® an amazing and convenient tool to help save lives quicker.
The VELscope® uses 16 LED lights to help detect subepithelial changes, or cellular changes underneath the surface of the skin. As a patient, you will see a bright blue light which helps us notice these changes as a darkening in the vision scope. We also have the ability to take pictures of the lesions to monitor them and help relay information to specialists should you need a referral. The device is sensitive to abnormal tissue changes and can show non-healthy tissue which looks distinctively different under the light. The blue-spectrum light causes the soft tissue (oral mucosa) of the mouth to naturally fluoresce, the healthy looking different from the unhealthy. This allows our exams to be more thorough; any suspicious areas can be quickly investigated for confirmation of oral disease and referred to the right specialist to get you the treatment that you need.
It is important to note that an abnormal screening does not always mean that the patient has cancer. If an abnormal screening does happen, rest assured Dr. Jyothi will spend time to educate you about what the next steps are. Your doctor may either refer you to a specialist, schedule a second scan later to see if the dark spots heals on its own, or may choose to perform a gentle, non-invasive brush biopsy to make sure it’s not cancer.
Changing Demographics and Risk Factors
Traditionally, we have always linked a very direct risk of oral cancer for those that use tobacco products (either smoking or chewing), especially in conjunction with regular alcohol use. In addition to tobacco, chewing betel nuts/use of bedis and smoking marijuana also increase your risk for oral cancer. But newer research confirms that the risk factors linked to oropharyngeal cancer have been expanded to include the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV16). Other notable risk factors are a compromised immune system, excessive and continued alcohol use, a poor diet, unprotected exposure to the sun and a past history of cancer.
The majority of people who have HPV in their system are completely unaware of their exposure. The simple presence of the virus will not directly cause cancer but will highly increase your risks. Because of this prevalence, our office recommends a thorough oral cancer screening, both visually and with a VELscope®, on every patient. This expanding patient demographic presents an unprecedented call to action for oral cancer awareness and regular screenings.
A screening for oral cancer is not just a medical exam. We would like for our patients to think of their screening as an opportunity for a person to talk to their dentist about fears and concerns. At Smiley Always Dental, we honor the opportunity to answer your questions and to help advise you about reducing your risk. We recognize that many patients may be apprehensive or nervous about a screening, and we welcome you to write a list of questions before you visit and sit with our doctor to address your concerns. The first and most important step is coming into the office to start your journey to health, and we know that it requires bravery. We commend our patients on taking that first step. Just a short, painless exam can put your mind at ease knowing we are here to guide you.