Has your dentist ever grabbed your tongue with a piece of gauze and pulled it from side to side? If so, you probably just had a screening for oral cancer, according to Dr. Craig Kohler, DDS.
Oral cancer forms on the lips or inside the mouth including in the cheek, hard palate on the roof of the mouth, tongue, tonsils or pharynx at the back of the throat. Oral cancer typically starts as a lump, bump or abnormal patch of cells in the mouth.
Oral cancer has long been known as a risk for people who use tobacco products and alcohol. A more recently recognized risk for oral cancer is the HPV 16 virus. HPV 16, also known as human papillomavirus 16, is a sexually transmitted infection.
According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 70 percent of cancers in the middle part of the throat (oropharyngeal cancers) are caused by HPV infection.
Kohler believes that changes in oral sex practices, especially among young adults, may put more people at risk for HPV warts in the mouth, which can later develop into oral cancer.
Kohler says that warts in the mouth can be surgically removed to reduce the risk that they will later become cancerous. As with other types of cancer, early detection is the key to successful treatment.
You might think oral cancer would be easy to spot, until you think about how dark it can be inside your mouth. That’s where your dentist has the advantage of both tools and training, to see areas of the mouth that are not visible in your bathroom mirror.
Kohler says that the general rule is to look for anything that is different from normal. That’s part of the reason your dentist might pull your tongue from side to side. If one side looks different from the other, it’s important to figure out what is going on.
Sore spots in the mouth and on the tongue may also be warning signs of oral cancer. Kohler says the key is to keep track of how long the irritated spot is there. Anything that doesn’t heal in about two weeks should be checked by your dentist or another health care professional.
Kohler also warns that areas of repeated trauma may be more prone to develop more problems such as becoming cancerous.
Don’t just ignore areas where cells can be repeatedly damaged. Pay special attention to any area on your lip, tongue or cheek that you bite repeatedly.
Also note any rough spots on a tooth that irritate your cheek or tongue. Talk to your dentist about any areas of concern. Kohler says that you may need to have a tooth adjusted, polished or removed to stop the irritation.
Oral cancer may show up as a sore spot in the mouth. But not all oral cancer causes pain. You could have a cancerous area in your mouth and not know it is there.
In most cases, if your dentist sees something that looks suspicious, he or she will probably take a biopsy sample of the abnormal cells to send to a lab to be tested. You might also get a referral to another dentist or oral surgeon who specializes in oral cancer.
Kohler recommends self-checks to help recognize changes in your own mouth. Start by getting a bright light and a mirror and really looking at the inside of your own mouth. Look for any area that looks different, or things that don’t match from one side to the other, like lumps or bumps.
He also recommends using your fingers to feel for unusual spots. Massage your lips and the walls of your cheeks to check for lumps. Also press on the floor of your mouth with your fingers to feel for any area that feels different from the tissue around it.
If you find anything that doesn’t look or feel right, Kohler says it is better to be careful and get it checked out to be sure there is nothing serious going on. He also recommends forming an on-going relationship with a dentist as a partner in your health care who can answer your questions.
Kohler emphasizes the importance of having an honest conversation with your dentist. You don’t need to give specifics about what high-risk activities you participate in. Just make sure your dentist knows that you believe you might be at higher risk so he or she can perform a more in-depth check for cancer.
Approximately 132 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed in the United States every day, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Oral cancer that is found early has an 80 to 90 percent survival rate. If you have questions about your oral health or your risks for oral cancer, talk to your dentist or health care provider.
Reviewed May 4, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
Interview with Dr. Craig Kohler, DDS. April 27, 2016.
The Oral Cancer Foundation. Web. Retrieved May 2, 2016.
HPV and Cancer. National Cancer Institute. Web. Retrieved May 2, 2016.
Oral Cancers. Head & Neck Cancer Guide. Web. Retrieved May 2, 2016.