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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:

  • Give information on oral cancer and what makes it more likely to occur (risk factors).

  • Describe oral cancer screening methods and what is known about their effectiveness.

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:

  • Lips.

  • 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.

    • The tonsils.

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.


To Learn More

Call

For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Deaf and hard-of-hearing callers with TTY equipment may call 1-800-332-8615. The call is free and a trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.

Web sites and Organizations

The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. There are also many other places where people can get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Local hospitals may have information on local and regional agencies that offer information about finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems associated with cancer treatment.

Publications

The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

LiveHelp

The NCI's LiveHelp service, a program available on several of the Institute's Web sites, provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.

Write

For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:

  • NCI Public Inquiries Office

  • Suite 3036A

  • 6116 Executive Boulevard, MSC8322

  • Bethesda, MD 20892-8322


About PDQ

PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on NCI's Web site.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ contains cancer information summaries.

The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether a method of finding cancer earlier can help people to live longer. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients and those who are at risk for cancer. During screening clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new screening method and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new method is better than one currently being used, the new method may become "standard." People who are at high risk for a certain type of cancer may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.