Oral Cancer

Oral cancer can occur anywhere in the mouth including the lips, tongue, gums, cheeks, the palate or throat. Many oral cancers can be successfully treated if detected early—an examination by a dentist is an important step in the early detection of oral cancers.

The following summarizes the approach to oral cancer screening as outlined in the Guidelines for the Early Detection of Oral Cancer in British Columbia 2008.

Dental exams:  The exam is the foundation of the oral cancer screening. During your exam your dentist will:

  • discuss your health history, oral habits and lifestyle factors along with any oral pain or discomfort you may have
  • perform an extraoral examination whereby they inspect the head, neck and perioral tissues for abnormalities
  • perform an intraoral examination to inspect all oral soft tissues

Based on completion of the above guidelines, your dentist may recommend the use of an optional screening tool. These screening tools do not replace the exam and are not required for all patients.

Optional screening tools: At times an optional screening tool, such as Velscope or Toluidine Blue Staining, may be used for more detailed examination of certain areas of your mouth or for patients with a history of oral cancer. These are not a required part of your dental exam, but may be used by your dentist following a review of your health history and lifestyle factors, or if they need to examine a particular area of your mouth more closely. Only a dentist can diagnose tissue abnormalities based on the use of the screening tools as part of their overall examination.

Suspicious lesions: If your dentist notices something suspicious, they will monitor it for a short period of time and a biopsy may be required. Your dentist will inform you of your results. If further care is required this may be provided by your dentists or they may refer you to specialist.  

There is no single cause of oral cancer. It results from a variety of factors and how individual patients react to those factors. Oral cancer occurs most often in people who use tobacco, and the combination of tobacco with alcohol greatly increases the risk.  

Early detection: Healthy behaviours and early detection are key factors to reducing cancer incidence and improving outcomes. Become familiar with your mouth and visit your dentist regularly for an exam. Call your dentist if you notice any of the following:

  • White or red patches on the lips or anywhere inside the mouth
  • Any sores that bleed easily but don’t heal within three weeks
  • Persistent lumps or ulcers
  • Unexpected loosening of teeth
  • Pain or numbness in the mouth or lips

Learn more:

Don’t ignore a mouth sore because it doesn’t hurt. Most pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions are completely painless. Minimize your risk for developing oral cancer: Avoid tobacco and excessive alcohol use, and wear lip balm that contains sunscreen.