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How Your Dental Visit Can Prevent or Detect Cancer

Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania

You may not think of your routine dental visit as a cancer screening test, but, in part, it is. Dentists and dental hygienists examine your mouth, tongue and surrounding tissue much more closely than you do and are most often the people who find pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions in early stages of growth.

A thorough oral cancer screening exam includes more than looking around your mouth. Your dentist will examine and feel your face, neck, lips, mouth, tongue, thyroid gland, salivary glands and lymph nodes for any abnormalities. If you have dentures or partials, they should be taken out to allow the entire mouth to be inspected.

People who smoke, use smokeless tobacco and drink alcohol are at higher risk of developing oral cancers. However, in recent years, oral cancers in younger people without these risk factors are on the rise. This is due to the prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus that is known to cause cancers of the oral cavity, cervix, anus, penis, vagina and vulva. (Learn more about HPV and oral cancers.) In addition, other cases occur in people with no risk factors at all, so screening is important for everyone.

Some dentists offer additional testing to detect pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions such as special lights. These are typically not covered by insurance and can cost 40-100$ out of pocket. The Journal of the American Dental Association published a review of these techniques, which found that there is insufficient evidence to support or refute the use of visually based adjunctive techniques. The study noted the importance of a thorough oral exam as the best method to detect oral lesions.

In addition to routine dental screenings, you should be aware of the potential signs of oral cancers and report these to your healthcare provider. Remember that many of these can be caused by non-cancerous (benign) conditions, but still warrant a trip to your healthcare provider for further investigation.

Signs to report:

  • A sore that bleeds easily or does not heal
  • A color change of the oral tissues
  • A lump, thickening, rough spot, crust or small eroded area
  • Pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving the jaw or tongue.

Resources and Further Reading