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Oral Cancer: Are You At Risk

Has your dentist performed an oral cancer screening lately? Published studies show that less than 25% of those who visit a dentist regularly report having had an oral cancer screening. The death rate associated with oral cancer is particularly high due to the cancer being routinely discovered in later stages. It is important that people realize that a visit to the dentist is no longer only about a cavity or a cleaning, but can be a matter of life and death. Dental examinations, when properly done and which include a screening for oral cancer, will save lives. Many dentists in Knoxville may do oral cancer screenings but not tell their patients. It may go unnoticed by the patient because unlike many other cancer screenings, there is no invasive technique necessary to look for it, no discomfort or pain involved, and it is very inexpensive to have your mouth examined for the early signs of disease.


Tobacco use in all its forms is number one on the list of cancer risk factors in individuals over 50. At least 75% of those diagnosed at 50 and older have used tobacco. This percentage is now changing as we learn more about viral causative agents, such as that found in HPV. When you combine tobacco with alcohol your risk increases significantly as the two act in synergy. In fact, you have a 15X  greater risk of developing oral cancer if you use tobacco in conjunction with alcohol.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a common DNA virus that is a proven, causative agent in cancers. Genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States with 20 million people ages 15 to 49 infected. At least half of all sexually active men and women get genital HPV at some time in their lives. HPV16 and HPV18 are subsets of the HPV virus that are known to cause around 70% of cervical cancer cases. The human papilloma virus, particularly version 16, has been shown to be sexually transmitted between partners, and is part of the increasing incidence of young non-smoking oral cancer patients.

Early Innervation

Oral cancer can go unnoticed in its early stage. It can be painless, without any noticeable physical changes. The good news is that your Physician or Dentist can usually see or feel the initial tissue changes.  Many times a suspicious soft tissue lesion will be due to trauma, such as biting your tongue or cheek. Many people who use smokeless tobacco will develop pre-cancerous changes in the color or texture of their gums. Sometimes a pocket begins to form where the users holds their tobacco. Areas such as this should be examined by the dentist to ensure that a cancerous process is not occurring. If the dentist is suspicious of a lesion then a biopsy may be done to definitively diagnose cancer.

The biggest message to take away from this is that early discovery of oral cancer is THE MOST CRITICAL step in reducing death rates. No group has a better opportunity to have a positive impact on this than the dental community. We hope that everyone in Knoxville is receiving oral cancer screenings by their dentist. Be sure to ask your dentist to review oral cancer with you if you feel at-risk.

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