Did you know that your routine dental check-up could save your life? Dentists are on the front lines of a growing health concern: oral cancer. Oral cancer is the uncontrollable growth of cells that invade the oral cavity (mouth) and the oropharynx (part of the throat at the back of the mouth). According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 53,000 people will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2019; that means 145 people each day. Prevention and early detection is one of the most effective strategies for treating oral cancer, as when it is caught early there is an 80-90% survival rate. Oral cancer screenings are an important part of our regular dental exams and something we want to help create more awareness about for our patients. To learn more about this critical health topic and the resources we have at FDA, we talked with Dr. Brunacini.
1. Why is oral cancer screening an important part of care at FDA?
Dr. Brunacini: As dentists, we are part of your health care team. A lot of what is seen in the mouth can be an indicator of overall health and a lot of patients see their dentist more frequently than their physician. That makes an oral cancer screening at the dentist extremely important for early detection of any changes in the mouth which can be the key to easier treatment options for oral cancer, as well as a rapid recovery, and a prolonged life.
2. What happens during an oral cancer screening?
Dr. Brunacini: A lot of the oral cancer screening is simply examining the soft tissues with our eyes. We examine the gum tissue, lips, cheeks, and tongue. We also palpate areas of the face and neck to check for any nodules or lumps. If there is an area of concern, we also offer to do a VELscope screening. VELscope is a non-invasive oral cancer screening device that emits a safe blue light that provides earlier detection of abnormal cell growth that could be cancerous or precancerous.
3. What are some risk factors for oral cancer?
Dr. Brunacini: The most common risk factors include tobacco, alcohol, and sun exposure. Cigarettes and other forms of tobacco account for most cases of oral cancer and lip cancer is often caused by excessive sun exposure.
Also, another risk factor, although less known, is HPV (Human Papillomavirus). It is a very common virus that most of us get exposed to throughout our childhood. There is now a vaccine that can be given, which could help decrease the risk for oral cancer.
Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns about these risk factors and your health.
4. Are there any warning signs or symptoms for oral cancer?
Dr. Brunacini: Yes, patients should be aware of any white patches or areas that bleed more easily, as these can sometimes be a sign of oral cancer. If there is a noticeable and recent change in your mouth, such as tenderness or a change in the way your teeth fit together, it is always a good idea to let us know. We will assess and address the issue and make sure that you are equipped with the information you need to make the best decisions for your well-being.
5. If you find something during a screening, what are the next steps?
Dr. Brunacini: Generally, if there is an area of concern, the next step will be a referral to an oral surgeon. The oral surgeon will perform a biopsy of the area to determine the diagnosis. A lot of times, the biopsy determines that the area is not of concern. However, when the biopsy is positive for cancerous cells, then further treatment may be indicated. Throughout this process, we are here to support our patients with the follow up care they need.
Thank you, Dr. Brunacini!
We strive to be your dental care partner for a healthy life and always want to make sure you have information about how we can help you achieve that. If you have any questions or concerns about your oral health or would like to schedule an appointment with an oral cancer screening, please call us at 207.781.5900.