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7 Questions on Oral Cancer Screenings

Tuesday, November 21, 2017 11:04 AM

We all think about our dental health; how often we brush, whether or not to floss. At the same time, many do not pay the same amount of attention to their oral health when it comes to cancer risks. Dr. Cheryl Nocon, Head and Neck Cancer specialist within the department of Otolaryngology, addresses the importance of oral cancer screenings below:

Who is recommended for oral cancer screenings?
High risk individuals are particularly recommended for oral cancer screenings, such as those with a current or past history of heavy tobacco (smoking and chewing) and/or alcohol use.  Individuals with concerning signs and symptoms are also encouraged to receive a thorough examination, such as a mouth sore or a lump that does not heal or go away, persistent sore throat or trouble swallowing, persistent ear pain, or a neck mass.   For those who are not at high risk and with no  symptoms, a routine screening can be performed at opportunistic times, such as at routine dental exams, or at an oral cancer screening.

What potential issues can a screening detect?
It can identify both pre-malignant (before it becomes cancer) and malignant (cancer) spots in the mouth and throat. It can also help differentiate between a benign (non-cancer) spot and a malignant spot. Finally, it can identify an enlarged neck lymph node that may be harboring cancer cells that originated in the mouth or throat.

Can you tell us about the screening process? (What you do during it, what you’re looking at)
We visually  examine your mouth and back of your throat with a light source, often using a tongue depressor as needed to help us view certain structures.   We examine the lips, tongue, floor of mouth, inside of your cheeks, roof of the mouth, gums and teeth, tonsils, back of your throat, and neck.

How long does a screening typically take?
It is quick, usually lasting no more than 5-10 minutes.

What can raise concerns during a screening?
We look for any discolored spots or patches, ulcers or open wounds, as well as asymmetry of your tonsils. We also feel with our fingers for any lumps or bumps that are not visually apparent in different areas of your mouth and throat.  Finally, we feel your neck to look for any enlarged lymph nodes or neck masses.  

If a patient seems to be in need of further examination, what should their next steps be?
The next step should be to schedule an appointment with an Otolaryngologist, who can perform a biopsy of any abnormal finding from the screening test.

Why do you believe oral cancer screenings are so important?
The earlier an oral cancer is identified and treated, the better the prognosis with treatment. Oral cancer screenings can help with this early identification, especially in high risk patients.