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What Does Oral Cancer Look Like?

Bring awareness of the risk of oral cancer

An oral cancer screening may not be your top priority when you come in for your dental check-up. Honestly, it may not even be on your radar. They are incredibly important and easy to do, though! Oral cancer screenings performed by a dental professional are quick and potentially lifesaving, which is especially important if you have one of more risk factors.

Not sure if you are at risk? Wondering what oral cancer looks like? Here’s what our Princeton dentist wants you to know!

What Causes Oral Cancer?

The exact cause of oral cancer is unknown, but we do know that certain lifestyle activities increase the risk of disease. A higher risk of oral cancer is influenced by carcinogens found in tobacco products, and other common causes stem from alcohol abuse, human papilloma virus (HPV), and excessive sun exposure to the lips.

The most common site for oral cancer is on the sides of the tongue. Oral cancer is also often found on the floor of the mouth, the cheeks, the gums, and the back of the throat.

Who’s at Risk?

Men are more susceptible than women to getting oral cancer, and the disease more often strikes those over 40 years old. This is most likely due to years of consistent exposure to carcinogens. However, we are seeing more and more younger people presenting with oral cancer, though, and this could be due to the prevalence of HPV. HPV can be passed along via oral sex, thus taking up residence in the mouth.

If you are in a high-risk group, it will be important for you to see your dentist regularly and maybe even perform some self-exams in between visits. The earlier oral cancer is caught, the greater the chances of survival.

What Does Oral Cancer Look And Feel Like?

An oral cancer screening takes several things into consideration. Our Princeton dentist or dental hygienist will typically palpate the lymph nodes of your head and neck and check the size of your thyroid. Lymph nodes that are movable are healthy, but lymph nodes that are hard and non-movable are something that we will want to investigate further. We will also examine the tongue, cheeks, lips, and floor of the mouth to check for hard, immovable areas that could indicate a tumor.

Another important part of the oral cancer screening process includes visual inspection. We can detect visual changes in the soft tissues by observing color, size, whether it is raised or flat, and the borders of the area of concern. Healthy soft tissue is uniform in color, while areas that raise suspicion will present as a different color.

Oral cancer lesions can be white, red, or a combination of white and red. The borders of oral cancer lesions will be very uneven, and it may be difficult to see the edges, as they are not crisply outlined. Our Princeton dentist may recommend that you observe the area of concern for a few weeks. If it does not go away, they may want to see you back in the office for a biopsy.

Tools Used By Dental Professionals

Sometimes oral cancer isn’t readily visible to the naked eye, so we use special tools at our disposal to help visualize “hidden” lesions. Vizilite is one such technology that uses a special solution to illuminate cancerous and precancerous cells in the mouth and throat with a fluorescent light. This system is especially helpful for people with added risk factors, since early detection of oral cancer is crucial for survival.

If an area of concern is found, a biopsy can be performed. Typically, we use what’s called a brush biopsy. A little bottle brush looking device is “brushed” along the area of concern, taking up cells in the skin that a pathologist can study. This is very quick, easy, and painless.

Oral Cancer Self-Exam

Tobacco users, heavy drinkers, those who get a lot of sun exposure, and people over 40 years old may want to perform an oral cancer self-exam in between dental check-ups, since the risk for oral cancer is higher in these groups. A self-exam is a quick and easy way to check for something that may seem odd to you, and you can always call our office to schedule a quick check for your peace of mind. Also, any lesion that does not resolve within a few weeks should be checked out by our dentist in Princeton.

To perform your self exam, start by gently checking your lips, cheeks, and tongue for any lumps, bumps, or tender spots. Stick out your tongue as far as you can and observe the top, underside, and each side of for any spots that appear to have a different color than the rest. You can also look at the floor of your mouth by lifting your tongue. To check the back of the throat, open wide and say “ah” as you look for color changes. It is important to note that oral cancer usually does not cause pain in the early stages, while an aphthous ulcer (non-cancerous), for example, does. Be sure to note any spots that are red, white, or a combination of both.

Can I Prevent Oral Cancer?

We may be able to detect oral cancer at its earliest and most treatable stage. Whether you are coming in twice a year or more often, an oral cancer screening is your best bet for detecting oral cancer while it’s early enough to treat. Remember, even people without typical risk factors can develop oral cancer, so it is very important to keep up with your regular dental check-ups.

It’s also a good idea to decrease all possible risk factors. If you smoke or use smokeless tobacco, cut down or quit. If you are a heavy drinker, consider decreasing your consumption or stopping altogether. Use sunscreen on your face and lip balm with a protective SPF when out in the sun.

Not sure when your last oral cancer exam was? Call Canal Vista Family Dental in Princeton so we can schedule your dental check-up and perform a life-saving cancer screening!

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