What is Oral Cancer?

Did you know that part of your dental checkup at Pasha Dental deals with having an oral cancer screening? You may be wondering why it is important to be screened for oral cancer because it is so rare. Contrary to popular belief, however, oral cancer is not as rare as it once was and there has been an increase in the number of oral cancer cases each year. 

In fact, The Oral Cancer Foundation estimates that about 145 people a day will be diagnosed with oral cancer. In the year 2019 alone, this is about 53,000 Americans. Because dentists are devoted to preserving oral health, many have begun incorporating oral cancer screening during regular checkups. Unfortunately, however, there is currently no national screening policy in the United States. 

Not only does Pasha Dental perform oral cancer screenings during regular dental checkups, but we have compiled a brief guide on oral cancer to keep our patients informed. At Pasha Dental, we believe that education is an important part of dental treatment and the maintenance of oral health. While any specific concerns should be addressed with Dr. Pasha during your dental consultation, here is some general information about oral cancer and what to expect during a screening. 

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer, also known as oropharyngeal cancer or mouth cancer, is a broad term used to describe any type of cancer that affects the oral or pharyngeal region. Specifically oral cancer can affect the lips, gums, tongue, inner lining of the cheeks, hard/soft palates, salivary glands, tonsils, or the pharynx. 

Depending on the location of the cancer, there are a variety of symptoms that can be associated with oral cancer, including: 

  • Mouth pain
  • Loose teeth
  • An internal or external sore that does not heal
  • Growth, lumps, or bumps inside the mouth
  • Discolorations on the inside of the mouth (white or reddish patches)
  • Ear pain
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Pain while swallowing
  • Persistent swelling (over 3 weeks)
  • Jaw pain
  • Thickening of the skin
  • Trouble speaking or hoarseness
  • Pain in the neck or salivary glands

What Causes Oral Cancer?

The most common cause of oral cancer is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 79 million Americans are infected with HPV. Although most cases of HPV usually resolve themselves without any major complications, in some cases the virus remains in the body and leads to cancer later in life. 

HPV

It is currently estimated that HPV is responsible for about 70% of all oral cancer cases. A report from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has also found that the number of oral cancer cases caused by HPV has doubled from the year 1999 to the year 2015. Furthermore, oral cancer caused by HPV is one of the fastest-growing segments of oral cancer. 

Another common cause of oral cancer is tobacco use through chewing tobacco, smoking, and vaping. It is no secret that smoking causes cancer, and oral cancer is only one type of cancer it can cause. The chemicals in tobacco smoke weaken the body’s immune system and can even damage or change a cell’s DNA, causing a cancerous tumor. 

However, many people now opt for electronic cigarettes as healthier alternatives to smoking. These electronic cigarettes can go by many names, such as: e-cigarettes, e-cigs, electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), alternative nicotine delivery systems (ANDS), e-hookahs, mods, vape pens, vaporizers, vapes, and tank systems.  

Hand holding a vape surrounded in smoke

The main difference between traditional cigarettes and these more “modernized” cigarettes is that an individual in inhaling a vapor created by a heated liquid, usually accompanied with a flavor. Although they still contain nicotine, e-cigs do not burn tobacco. For this reason, they are believed to be “safer” than traditional cigarettes. 

Nevertheless, vaping or smoking e-cigs is still considered harmful to your oral health and Dr. Pasha considers them to be just as harmful as smoking traditional cigarettes. The vaporized liquid can increase your risk for tooth decay, as well as irritate the soft tissues within you mouth, making them more susceptible to developing oral cancer. Additionally, the vaporized liquid delivers carcinogenic materials directly to the hard and soft tissues of your mouth. 

Oral Cancer Screenings: 

To protect you and your family from oral cancer, Pasha Dental performs regular oral cancer screenings to identify possible cases early on. When detected in the early stages, oral cancer has an 80-90% survival rate as compared to the 43% fatality rate at five years when diagnosed in the later stages. This is one reason, among many, that regular dental checkups at Pasha Dental are so important. 

An oral cancer screening at Pasha Dental consists of a visual exam, physical exam, and the possible use of specialized screening devices. Prior to the exams, all dental appliances must be removed from the mouth so that Dr. Pasha can have an unobstructed view of everything. 

Close up of a dental mirror inside a patient's mouth

To start the visual exam, Dr. Pasha will carefully evaluate the inside and outside of the mouth, as well as the throat. He will look for any tissue abnormalities such as swelling, asymmetry, bumps, irregular coloration, or ulcerations. During this phase, he will likely use a light and a dental mirror to carefully visualize each structure. He may also use a tongue depressor to expose areas in the back of your mouth. 

During the physical portion of the exam, which may take place during or after the visual exam, Dr. Pasha will gently palpate the head, cheeks, jaw, under the chin, and within the oral cavity to check for nodules, masses, or sources of pain. He may also check your jaw and swallowing functions. 

Doctor's hands checking a woman's lymph nodes

In some cases, a special blue light or an acidic mouthwash may be used to obtain better visualization of certain areas. The blue light works by highlighting damaged tissues and the mouthwash works in a similar way by gathering around damaged tissue. Both methods can quickly signal the presence of tissues that require further testing. 

It is important to note that your oral cancer screening is precautionary and not diagnostic. This means that everyone will receive a screening, whether or not oral cancer is suspected. It also means that if nothing abnormal is found, no further testing is needed. Finally, it can also mean that if something odd is found, you will likely be referred out for further testing. It is also important to note that being referred for further testing does not automatically mean you have oral cancer. Rather, it is simply to find out more about what is going on. 

To get yourself and your family screened for oral cancer, schedule a consultation with Dr. Pasha Javaheri Saatchi of Pasha Dental today for your dental care appointment. Pasha Dental is proud to provide dental services for residents in the Brooklyn, NY area as well as to residents of Staten Island, Queens, and Manhattan. 

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