Screening for Oral Cancer
Overview of Screening
What is screening?
Screening for cancer is examination (or testing) of people for early stages in the development of cancer even though they have no symptoms. Scientists have studied patterns of cancer in the population to learn which people are more likely to get certain types of cancer. They have also studied what things around us and what things we do in our lives may cause cancer. This information sometimes helps doctors recommend who should be screened for certain types of cancer, what types of screening tests people should have, and how often these tests should be done. Not all screening tests are helpful, and most have risks such as bleeding or infection due to a biopsy for an abnormal screening test. For this reason, scientists at the National Cancer Institute are studying many screening tests to find out how useful they are and to determine the relative benefits and harms.
If your doctor suggests certain cancer screening tests as part of your health care plan, this does not mean he or she thinks you have cancer. Screening tests are done when you have no symptoms. Since decisions about screening can be difficult, you may want to discuss them with your doctor and ask questions about the potential benefits and risks of screening tests and whether they have been proven to decrease the risk of dying from cancer.
If your doctor suspects that you may have cancer, he or she will order certain tests to see whether you do. These are called diagnostic tests. Some tests are used for diagnostic purposes, but are not suitable for screening people who have no symptoms.
Purposes of this summary
The purposes of this summary on oral cancer screening are to:
You can talk to your doctor or health care professional about cancer screening and whether it would be likely to help you.
Oral Cancer Screening
Oral cancer may develop in any of the following areas:
Oral cavity, which includes:
The front two thirds of the tongue.
The gingiva (gums).
The buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks).
The floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue.
The hard palate (the roof of the mouth).
The retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth).
Oropharynx, which includes:
The middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth.
The back one-third of the tongue.
The soft palate.
The side and back walls of the throat.
Salivary glands are located throughout the oral cavity and oropharynx.
This summary will describe the risk factors and screening tests associated with oral cancer.
Risk of oral cancer
The number of new cases of oral cancer, as well as the number of deaths from oral cancer, has been decreasing.
Anything that increases a person’s chance of developing a disease is called a risk factor. Some of these risk factors for oral cancer are as follows:
Sex: Men have a slightly higher risk of developing oral cancer than women.
Race: The risk of developing oral cancer is higher in blacks than in whites.
Age: The risk of developing oral cancer increases after age 45 years.
Tobacco and Alcohol Use: The use of tobacco (including smokeless tobacco) and alcohol increases the risk of developing oral cancer.
HPV Infection: Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) increases the risk of developing cancer of the oropharynx.
Screening tests for oral cancer
Screening for oral cancer may be done during a physical examination by the dentist or doctor. High-risk areas of the mouth that can be checked for early detection are the floor of the mouth, the front and sides of the tongue, and the soft palate. The exam will include looking for lesions on the mucous membranes, including leukoplakia (white patches) and erythroplakia (red patches). Oral cancer sometimes develops in areas with these lesions. It is not known, however, if screening decreases the risk of dying from oral cancer. Early-stage oral cancer can be cured, but most oral cancers have spread by the time they are found.
Changes to This Summary (07/23/2007)
The PDQcancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.
Questions or Comments About This Summary
If you have questions or comments about this summary, please send them to Cancer.gov through the Web site’s Contact Form. We can respond only to email messages written in English.
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