Regular screenings can help detect oral, head and neck cancers

Cancer screenings
Preventing cancer is the goal. But diagnosing it early is just as important considering cancer found in its early stages is most treatable. Get the facts about these head and neck and details about screening.

An estimated 75 percent of head and neck cancers begin in the oral cavity, a term that describes your lips and what’s in your mouth—including the tongue, gums, lining inside the cheeks and lips, and the bony top of the mouth. The good news is that your dentist or doctor can perform a thorough oral, head and neck cancer screening in less than five minutes.

As always, preventing cancer is the goal. But diagnosing it early is just as important considering cancer found in its early stages is most treatable. Here are a few facts about oral, head and neck and details about screening.

Risk factors

For many years, tobacco and alcohol use were the main risk factors for oral, head and neck cancers. Three in four of these cancers have historically been associated with smoking or using other tobacco products, and heavy drinking. Today, though, human papillomavirus (HPV) infections in the mouth are becoming more common, and may surpass tobacco and alcohol use as the leading cause of these cancers. Oral cancers linked to HPV, especially HPV-16, have increased three-fold over the past 20 years, with more men affected than women.

Cancers found in patients who use tobacco and alcohol in excess are typically found on the tongue, lip and bottom of the mouth. In contrast, cancers that began as an HPV infection develop in these areas of the mouth: the tonsils, base of the tongue and the middle part of the throat including the soft palate.

Who should be screened

More people are being diagnosed with oral, head and neck cancers at a younger age than in the past, when most of these cancers were found in adults over age 50. Because oral, head and neck cancers now affect a more diverse group of people, virtually everyone should be screened. That includes:

  • People who smoked or used other tobacco products, and those who drink alcohol in excess
  • Anyone who’s sexually active, as HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection
  • Anyone with a prior head and neck malignancy

What to expect during a screening

Your dentist or doctor will visually examine your head, neck, face and mouth to look for any masses, lesions and swelling, or any facial asymmetry. He or she will compare both sides of your neck for any signs of enlargement, while feeling for any enlarged lymph nodes. The clinician also will take note of your voice, as a raspy, hoarse voice may be a sign of a tumor.

The clinician will then examine your mouth to look for both red and white lesions on the mucous membrane, as well any masses with in the tissues. While examining your tongue, the clinician will note any ulcers, swellings or other abnormalities, and will likely ask you to stick out your tongue and move it from side to side to look for any spasms or asymmetry. The clinician will use what’s called a laryngeal mirror to inspect the inside of the back of your throat.

Yearly screening is recommended. Otherwise, consult with your doctor about a screening schedule that’s appropriate for you.

Learn about the symptoms of head and neck cancer.