Oral Cancer Screening and Detection

Any talk of ‘the big C’ can be stressful and worrisome, to say the least; oral cancer doesn’t get the coverage other forms of cancer despising having a higher mortality rate than breast and prostate cancer. In 2013, 4,100 new cases were diagnosed in Canada.[1]

Thankfully, oral cancer can be successfully treated if it is caught early enough. highlighting the importance of having a screening. Let’s take a few minutes to tackle this heavy subject by sharing some of the symptoms to look for, how to reduce risk factors, and then demystifying the screening process.

Oral Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of the disease can take a number of forms, many of which can be present in very common places (ex: sore throat or poorly fitting dentures).


  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • A lump or thickening of the skin or lining of your mouth
  • A white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Poorly fitting dentures
  • Tongue pain
  • Jaw pain or stiffness
  • Difficult or painful chewing
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Feeling that something is caught in your throat[2]

Can you identify a cause for these symptoms? Do they persist for more two weeks? If you can’t and they do not go away with time or regular treatment, it is recommended to get an oral cancer screening.

Risk Factors

The Canadian Dental Association (CDA) reminds us that while the actual cause of oral cancer is unknown, we do know many key risk factors, including:

  • Consumption of tobacco products (cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars, etc)
  • Heavy alcohol consumption (It is especially dangerous to combine smoking and alcohol)
  • Oral sex (leading to the STD, human papillomavirus [HPV])
  • Prolonged, repeated exposure of the lips to the sun
  • Poor diet; genetics and gender (more men develop the disease than women)
  • A history of leukoplakia (a thick, whitish-colour patch inside the mouth)[3]

By reducing, avoiding, or mitigating those behaviours you can control (ex: using UV protecting lip balm and loading up on fruits and veggies), you can reduce your odds of contracting this disease. Nevertheless, as some factors are beyond your control, the importance of screenings cannot be underscored.

The Oral Cancer Screening

Oral cancer screening is both effective and non-invasive. Regarding its effectiveness, approximately 84 percent of oral cancer cases may be detected early by a dental professional.[4]

Surprisingly, as much of the screening takes place inside your mouth as outside. Your dental professional will physically examine your gums and cheeks, both inside and out, along with the floor and roof of your mouth. The examination continues by looking at the face for signs of asymmetry or swelling, and an inspection of your lymph nodes through touch of your neck and jaw joint, lips, and the area around your ears. Of course, no test would be complete without the classic ‘stick out your tongue and say “ahh”’ component!

Finally, some dentists might perform a pair of additional tests. One involves rinsing your mouth with a special blue dye to identify abnormal cells with a change in colour. As well, the dentist might shine a light in your mouth which will also look for changes in colour with abnormal cells.[5]

With early detection, the rates of successful treatment are much greater. For this reason alone, we strongly recommend making oral cancer screening a regular part of your oral health routine. Talk to your dentist about it at your next visit.

[1] http://youroralhealth.ca/oral-health-a-your-body/oral-cancer
[2] http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mouth-cancer/basics/symptoms/con-20026516
[3] http://www.cda-adc.ca/en/oral_health/talk/complications/diseases/oral_cancer.asp
[4] http://www.besthealthmag.ca/best-you/prevention/what-to-expect-at-an-oral-cancer-screening
[5] http://youroralhealth.ca/oral-health-a-your-body/oral-cancer

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