Has your dentist ever grabbed your tongue with a piece of gauze and pulled it from side to side? If so, you probably just had a screening for oral cancer, according to Dr. Craig Kohler, DDS.
Oral cancer forms on the lips or inside the mouth including in the cheek, hard palate on the roof of the mouth, tongue, tonsils or pharynx at the back of the throat. Oral cancer typically starts as a lump, bump or abnormal patch of cells in the mouth.
Oral cancer has long been known as a risk for people who use tobacco products and alcohol. A more recently recognized risk for oral cancer is the HPV 16 virus. HPV 16, also known as human papillomavirus 16, is a sexually transmitted infection.
According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 70 percent of cancers in the middle part of the throat (oropharyngeal cancers) are caused by HPV infection.
Kohler believes that changes in oral sex practices, especially among young adults, may put more people at risk for HPV warts in the mouth, which can later develop into oral cancer.
Kohler says that warts in the mouth can be surgically removed to reduce the risk that they will later become cancerous. As with other types of cancer, early detection is the key to successful treatment.
You might think oral cancer would be easy to spot, until you think about how dark it can be inside your mouth. That’s where your dentist has the advantage of both tools and training, to see areas of the mouth that are not visible in your bathroom mirror.
Kohler says that the general rule is to look for anything that is different from normal. That’s part of the reason your dentist might pull your tongue from side to side. If one side looks different from the other, it’s important to figure out what is going on.
Sore spots in the mouth and on the tongue may also be warning signs of oral cancer. Kohler says the key is to keep track of how long the irritated spot is there. Anything that doesn’t heal in about two weeks should be checked by your dentist or another health care professional.
Kohler also warns that areas of repeated trauma may be more prone to develop more problems such as becoming cancerous.