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Diagnosing Oral Cancer

Dental exams include oral cancer screenings.

Oral cancer accounts for about 3.6 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States. The disease most commonly affects the sides of the tongue, floor of the mouth (under the tongue), soft palate, lips and gums. Oral cancer will often appear as red, white or discolored patches or lumps, or as an ulcer that does not heal. Oral cancer tends to be more common in men than in women, and habits such as the consumption of alcohol, smoking or chewing tobacco, as well as prolonged exposure to sunlight have all been identified as significant risk factors. Although the early stages of oral cancer are usually painless, later cases can cause chronic pain, numbness, and the inability for the mouth to function normally. Sadly, oral cancer has only a 50 percent five-year survival rate.

An oral cancer screening is an important part of every dental examination, but potentially dangerous lesions can sometimes go unnoticed. The reason is that many oral lesions tend to look the same. Pizza burns, canker sores, fever blisters, lacerations, as well as oral cancer can all appear surprisingly similar. When a dentist evaluates an oral lesion, he or she will ask the patient some questions regarding when and how it appeared, and will then wait about two weeks to see if it resolves. If the lesion has not partially or completely healed in two weeks, a biopsy is usually needed. If the dentist suspects oral cancer, it is often preferable to have a dental specialist, namely an oral surgeon, to do the biopsy.

To perform a biopsy, the doctor numbs the area and then uses a scalpel to remove part or all of the suspicious lesion, and often some healthy tissue as well. The tissue sample is then sent to a lab where a pathologist evaluates it under a high-power microscope to aid in the diagnosis. Successful as these methods are, dental researchers have recently perfected a technique to provide accurate biopsies without the scalpel. The procedure involves using a computer to evaluate brush biopsies. The brush biopsy is performed without anesthesia using an instrument to gently scrape against the lesion and collect a surface layer of tissue. The tissue is then placed on a slide, and a computer is programmed to pick out abnormal cells for the pathologist to evaluate. A recent study compared this new, high-tech system with the conventional scalpel biopsy and found that both cancerous and abnormal tissues were correctly identified in every case. The brush biopsy is being heralded as an easy and painless way for dentists to evaluate potentially deadly, cancer-causing lesions as early as possible.

It is important to remember that oral cancer, and cancer in general, is far more likely to be cured if discovered early. You can protect yourself from oral cancer by limiting or eliminating alcohol, tobacco products and excessive exposure to sunlight. It's a good idea to perform daily self-examinations of your mouth and visit the dentist at least twice a year for those all-important oral cancer screenings.

Remember, only a dentist can diagnose your dental problems and offer the right treatment plan for you. If you need a dentist, call us at 1-866-970-0441 to be connected with one today.

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