Watch Your Mouth: Self-Screening for Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is increasing in its incidence, and it is affecting a different demographic than it used to.  Because of this changing demographic, it is not simple to predict who will get oral cancer.  For this reason, everyone should perform a self-screening of the mouth every month.  Just as doctors recommend that women perform a self-breast exam to catch breast cancer in its earliest stages, we are now recommending monthly self-screenings of the mouth to catch any suspicious areas as early as possible.

Why You Should Self-Screen for Oral Cancer

Oral cancer has a very high survival rate when it is caught early.  The reason many people do not survive oral cancer or need very aggressive treatments is that they catch it late.  With early detection, you have a chance at treatment that is more conservative and a higher survival rate.

Another reason you should be self-screening is the frequency of your dental visits.  The best-case scenario is that you see your dentist every six months.  Many people are irregular in their dental visits, going 1-2 years between appointments.  Screening monthly gives you a greater chance of catching something early.

What You Should Look For

When looking around the inside of your mouth, you should try to use a lighted magnifying mirror.  The more you can see, the more thorough your screening will be.  You can also recruit the help of a loved one, and have them use a flashlight to look around your mouth.

Look for any areas on the soft tissue that do not match the surrounding tissues.  Pre-cancerous spots can look like white patches or red ulcerated sores.  Also, look for enlargements or lumps of tissue that seem out of place.  This can be tricky because the mouth is full of natural lumps and bumps as part of its anatomy.  For instance, the back of the tongue has large bumps in a V-shaped formation called the circumvallate papillae.  These are normal anatomical features and nor cancer.

Note any area that is different in color or tender when you touch it.  If possible, take a photo of any area that looks unusual.  Also, note what date you spotted something unusual because the first thing your dentist will ask is, “How long has the spot been there?”

After noticing an unusual spot, mix up some warm salt water and swish it vigorously around your mouth for 1-2 minutes.  Re-evaluate the area to see if anything changed.  If the spot you find is white in color, take a gauze pad and try to wipe it off.

You should also use your fingers to feel the outside of your mouth from the jaw joints just in front of your ears down the neck to the collarbones.  Gently press inward to feel for any unusual lumps.  If you find a particular lump on both sides, it is probably a normal anatomical feature (like lymph nodes or “glands”).  If one side is notably larger than the other is, make note of it and check it daily for 2 weeks.

When You Should Call Your Dentist

The good news is that most unusual spots in the mouth are not oral cancer.  They typically go away on their own over a period of about two weeks.  Even very painful sores like aphthous ulcers usually heal on their own.

If you notice something that looks out of place during your self-screening, note the date and take a photo.  Follow-up for the next two weeks.  If it goes away, you do not need to do anything.  If it stays the same, grows in size, or becomes tender within that two-week period, call to set up a visit with your dentist for an in-person evaluation.

How to Perform an Oral Cancer Self-Screening

It is best to use a systematic approach each time so you do not miss any areas of the mouth.  We like the method outlined at www.sixstepscreening.org.  If you would like more detailed instructions on how to look around your mouth, let us know at your next visit.  Our dental hygienists and Dr. Chowning can show you the important areas to check.

More Questions about Oral Cancer Screenings?

Call 940-382-1750 to schedule a visit with Dr. Chowning.  He will perform a professional oral cancer screening and teach you how to do monthly self-screenings at home.

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