What are the Signs of Oral Cancer?

Even in the middle of a global pandemic, April is still oral cancer awareness month.  You can even argue that without the ability to see your dentist for non-emergency dental care, it is even more important than ever before that you begin self-screening for oral cancer and understand what to look for.

Oral Cancer Self-Screenings

Dr. Chowning and our awesome dental hygienists perform an oral cancer screening on every patient we see for routine check-ups.  You may not even realize these screenings are occurring.  As the dentist and hygienist evaluate your mouth, they search for any signs of suspicious areas both inside and outside of the mouth.  The Oral Cancer Foundation recommends that every adult have an oral cancer screening by a dental professional at least once per year.

They also recommend that every adult perform a self-screening every month.  It is possible for you to spot changes in your oral tissues between your dental check-ups.  We recommend self-screenings for the same reason doctors recommend self-breast exams for women: the earlier we detect it, the better your long-term prognosis.

There are a few sites offering wonderful photo and video instructions for self-screenings, so we will not try to replicate that here.  Simply visit these websites for information on how to perform a thorough oral cancer self-screening.

Check Your Mouth – developed by the Oral Cancer Foundation

Six-Step Screening – founded by an oral cancer survivor and recognized by the Oral Cancer Foundation and the American Academy of Oral Medicine

What to Look For

  • Look for anything unusual, that doesn’t seem to blend or fit in with the surrounding tissues. Most oral cancer begins on the surface, like skin cancer.
  • Make a note of the date you first notice something suspicious, and follow it closely for two weeks. If possible, take photos every day or every other day to document any changes.
  • Some forms of oral cancer occur near the back of the tongue and in the throat. These areas are almost impossible to visualize.  This is why you should not any chronic sore throat, hoarseness, or difficulty swallowing.
  • The timeline is important. Many people suffer from canker sores and fever blisters.  However, an ulcer or sore that does not heal within 2 weeks could be something more serious and needs evaluation.

Important Note:

We do not want to create an alarm over every unusual spot in the mouth.  Remember that there are many, many other oral conditions that cause changes in the surface tissues.  Not every spot that looks different is oral cancer.  You can assume that a funny-looking spot, which goes away in two weeks, is not oral cancer.

The goal is to get you looking so that when something dangerous does arise, you will catch it as early as possible.

Early Detection is Key to Long-Term Success

As with any cancer, the earlier you catch oral cancer, the higher success rate there is.  Early detection also allows for less invasive treatment with fewer consequences.  Oral cancer treatment begins with surgery, and may also include radiation and/or chemotherapy depending on the stage.

By self-screening your mouth every month, you are more likely to catch any suspicious lesions in their earliest stages.  If you see something unusual, try to take a clear photo of it.  You will probably need to have someone else take the photo using a flash in order to focus on the exact spot.  You can hold your tongue out or pull your cheek away to help get the best view.

Make note of any of the following, and monitor with photos daily or every other day.

  • White patches that do not rub off
  • Dark red areas or spots that look like a deep bruise
  • Ulcers or canker sores that do not heal in two weeks
  • Lumps or bumps in the gums, cheeks, lips, tongue, or floor of the mouth
  • An area of the gums with a strange bumpy or pebbly texture that does not go away with great oral hygiene

These signs do not always mean “oral cancer”, but they are important red flags to keep an eye out for.

Concerned about a Dental Emergency?

We are still here for you.  If you or a loved one have a true dental emergency, call our office at 940-382-1750 and follow the instructions on the voicemail.

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