April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Oral cancer is a subcategory of head and neck cancer that includes cancers of the lips, mouth, jaws, tongue and throat. It affects about 54,000 Americans annually. Of these 54,000, roughly 9,750 individuals will die, and the 5-year survival rate is only 57%. Death rates are particularly high for oral cancer because it is often diagnosed later in development, as it can grow undetected and is typically not painful. OralCancer Facts – The Oral Cancer Foundation
Every Pinnacle clinical staff member is trained to recognize abnormal tissues in the oral cavity. During cleanings and exams tissues are inspected for abnormal appearance, such as lumps, bumps or ulcers. Areas in question are photographed for record and presented to Dr. Kottman. Have you ever wondered why Dr. Kottman has you stick out your tongue and move it side to side? Historically, the sides of the tongue and the floor of the mouth are the most common sites of oral cancer, but with an increasing number of cases caused by the HPV 16 virus, this is changing and more back of the throat cancers are being diagnosed each year. Studies show that visual screening exams by the well-trained eye are as effective as other diagnostic devices.
We take panoramic radiographs every 3-5 years to monitor the jaws for any possible lesions. If anything on the panoramic x-ray seems out of the ordinary, we will refer you to a specialist for a second opinion and possible biopsy.
At your annual appointment, Healthy Mouth Scans are performed with our Itero ™ scanner. It allows us to monitor the gum tissue close to the teeth, which can be affected by oral cancer. The scans will pick up size or position changes of the gum tissue in fractions of a millimeter. It is important to note that a simple change in gum tissue does not indicate cancer.
If Dr. Kottman finds any tissues that look out of the ordinary, she will either re-evaluate the area in 2 weeks or send you to a specialist for a second opinion and possible biopsy. A biopsy is the only true way to identify a lesion. Although a biopsy may sound scary, there is no cause for alarm if a biopsy is recommended. It is a normal part of a referral between doctors of different specialties to best serve the patient. The recommended course of action will depend on the lesion noted and the history of the lesion.
Although it is impossible to avoid all risk factors, you can do your part at home to minimize as many risk factors as possible. This includes not drinking alcohol or using tobacco products, talking to your physician about the Gardasil vaccine to protect against HPV, eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables, wearing protective sunscreen daily and lastly performing self-exams. Performing self-screenings is a great way to protect you and possibly identify a problem area in the early stages. Check out this video on how to perform a self-exam.
Keep in mind, there are a number of “normal abnormalities” that can be found in the mouth, none of which are dangerous or harmful. The key to doing a self-exam is to look for changes over time. Most lesions in the mouth that are not harmful, such as cold sores, canker sores or trauma from eating and brushing will resolve on their own in 14 days.
If you are ever worried or unsure, please do not hesitate to schedule an appointment, or if it's been a while since you've had your teeth cleaned, contact us for this important screening. A strong partnership between us is key to keeping your mouth as healthy as possible.