7 Steps for Better Oral Cancer Checks


In the United Kingdom, November is Mouth Cancer Action Month, a campaign aimed at early detection of oral cancer. The campaign offers useful screening tips that also apply to American dentists.

November marks Mouth Cancer Action Month in the United Kingdom, a campaign aimed at reinforcing the need for dentists to perform mouth cancer checks during every check-up. While this campaign is taking place overseas, there are takeaways for American dentists as well.

In the United States, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that there will be 48,330 cases of oral cavity and pharynx cancer, resulting in 9,570 deaths. That’s about 3% of all cancer cases in the US. Typically, according to NCI, oral cancer affects men more prevalently than women, especially among those who are heavy smokers or alcohol users. It also tends to affect people with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Currently, NCI estimates that 64% of patients survive 5 years.

The organizers of Mouth Cancer Action Month—the Oral Health Foundation—emphasize that early detection is critical.

Oral Health Foundation CEO Nigel Carter (OBE, BDS, LDS), is quoted in the organization’s news release as saying, “Catching mouth cancer cases early significantly increases a person’s chance of survival to 90 per cent from 50 per cent, early diagnosis is incredibly vital. … I am calling on dental professionals to have a refresh on how to carry out an effective mouth cancer examination to ensure they do not miss any chance to save someone’s life. … Be on the lookout for ulcers which have not healed within three weeks, red and white patches in the mouth and any unusual lumps or swellings in the mouth, head and neck area.”

The Oral Health Foundation encourages dentists to follow these 7 steps for cancer checks.

1. Head and Neck: Do both sides of the head and neck look the same? Are there any asymmetrical lumps, bumps, or swellings?

2. Neck: Is there any tenderness or any lumps in the patient’s neck? Press the neck to check.

3. Lips: Pull down the lower lip to look for sores or color changes. Then feel the lip for lumps, bumps, or texture changes. Repeat for the upper lip.

4. Cheek: Look inside. Notice any red, white, or dark patches? Again, check for lumps, tenderness, or ulcers and repeat for the other cheek.

5. Roof of the Mouth: Visually inspect the roof of the patient’s mouth for lumps or color changes. Then use your finger to feel for lumps.

6. Tongue: Have the patient stick out their tongue and look for color or texture changes. Then examine the underside of the tongue, looking for the same things.

7. Floor of the Mouth: Look again for changes in color. Run your finger along the floor and underside of the tongue to check for swellings, ulcers, or lumps.

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