Oral Cancer Screening

What is Oral cancer screening?

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Dentistry has evolved beyond just drilling and filling. By valuing our profession as part of the wider medical field, we aim to provide a holistic approach to our examinations.

At every dental appointment we aim to examine the soft tissues (lips, gums, cheeks, tongue and roof of mouth) for any sign of disease, irregularity or abnormality. Many systemic diseases can show early symptoms in the mouth; for instance anaemia shows with a paleness to the gums. Crohns disease and other digestive disorders may show as ulcers and lesions. Even reflux can be detected by dentists by a change in the enamel erosion patterns.
The modern dentist needs a thorough grounding in basic medicine, pathology and pharmacology.

Oral cancer is any cancer of the lips, mouth, tongue, upper throat as well as in the jawbones. They may present as a non-healing ulcer or a swelling, and are not always painful or visible.

Oral cancer screening comprises a risk assessment (smoking, alcohol, diet, viruses), as well as a rigorous visual examination; and in some instances, specific tests. Suspicious spots or patches can be biopsied and sent for testing by an oral medicine specialist.

Early detection of the cancer drastically improves the prognosis and decreases the severity of treatment.

The more common cancers that are seen by dentists include squamous cell carcinomas (which are also skin cancers), melanomas, bone cancers such as osteosarcomas and ameloblastomas. The commonest site for mouth cancers is on the side of the tongue.

Where do oral cancers usually present?

From australian cancer council: In 2010, 666 new cases of tongue cancer and 626 new cases of laryngeal cancer were diagnosed in Australia. Incidence figures for the other head and neck cancers are not readily available.

In 2011, there were 207 laryngeal cancer deaths and 158 tongue cancer deaths in Australia. Sources:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2012. Cancer data: Pivot table. AIHW: Canberra
Whilst screening is an important way to catch the disease early, screening is not guaranteed to diagnose all oral cancers. We recommend a vigilant approach, but also to reduce risk factors, specifically smoking and alcohol consumption.