Dentists are trained to recognize both premalignant and malignant oral lesions. This is part of their schooling and training. A thorough cancer screening should be part of your regular exam and check-ups.
Smoking and drinking alcohol, particularly when done together, are known causative agents of oral cancer. Due to the destructive nature of these agents on the cells in your mouth, they more frequently need to repair themselves. With each reparative phase, there is more likely to be a mutation that can lead to cancer. Other cancers are viral-mediated. There has been an upsurge in pharyngeal cancers caused by HPV virus spread through oral sex.
Any suspicious sore, growth or ulcer should be reported to your dentist immediately. Most suspicious lesions will present as a red or white lesion, or an ulcer. The majority of red and white lesions in the mouth are not cancer and can represent a myriad of other disease entities, for example; herpes, apthous stomatitis, lichen planus, fungal infections, and simple thickening of the mucosa called “hyperkeratosis”.
White lesions, termed “leukoplakia”, literally meaning white patches, are usually benign. However, some white lesions represent a precancerous condition known as dysplasia. Dysplasia is when cells begin to change. While not yet a cancer, these atypical cells could turn into a cancer. “Erythroplakia”, or red lesions, are more likely to be a cancer. Your dentist should inspect any open ulcer or red lesion if they are present longer than 2 weeks. Cancer usually does not start out being painful. So even if the lesion does not hurt, it should still be examined.
The most common areas for cancer are the floor of the mouth, the area on the lower jaw behind the last tooth, and the sides of the tongue. Lesions in these areas should raise a higher level of suspicion. Your dentist may refer you to a specialist such as an oral surgeon for a biopsy. Most biopsies are a simple five minute in office procedure done with local anesthesia. The small piece of tissue that is removed is submitted to a pathology department for a definitive diagnosis. The results are usually available within 3-5 days. Almost all oral cancers in their early stages are easily cured, so be sure to see your dentist regularly.