The National Cancer Institute (SEER) 2018 reports an estimate of new cases of oral cavity and pharyngeal cancers in 2018 to be 51,540 which is 3.0% of all new cancer cases. This amounts to 10,030 of estimated deaths and 1.6% of all cancer deaths. SEER data suggests that 64.8% of patients will survive more than 5 years. The increase in incidence of oropharyngeal cancer in white males is due to an increase in cancers at the base of the tongue and tonsils associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.1 Head and neck cancers rank 6th in cancers worldwide with an annual incidence rate of 600,000 individuals.46 Studies have shown that visual and tactile examination of the structures of the head, neck and oral cavity are effective in detecting abnormalities occurring within these structures. Therefore, procedures such as the head and neck and intraoral examinations, often referred to as an oral cancer examination or oral cancer screening, are important elements of a complete patient assessment. These examinations should be performed on a routine basis for every patient, not just new patients or those with known risk factors such as the use of tobacco or alcohol, increasing age, or + HPV status.

It is important to diagnose lesions in a pre-malignant or early stage while still confined to the epithelial layers. Growing awareness of the importance of diagnosing oral cancer early is demonstrated by the inclusion of a specific objective (OH-6) in Healthy People 2020. The goal of which is to increase the proportion of oral and pharyngeal cancers detected at the earliest stage from 32.5% in 2007 to 35.8% in 2020.2 The target goal for 2020 is also to increase dental visits from 43.2% to 49.0%. Early treatment normally results in less surgery, less radiation and chemotherapy, and a better quality of life. Treatment for oral, oropharyngeal and other head and neck cancers diagnosed at later stages is usually associated with more extensive dysfunction and disfigurement than treatment for those same cancers diagnosed in earlier stages. Complications associated with therapy for oral, oropharyngeal and other head and neck cancers include: altered eating and swallowing patterns, salivary gland dysfunction (often total loss of the salivary glands), and loss of hard and soft oral tissues such as teeth, bone, and parts of the tongue, among others. In a 2010 study, Rethman et al. reported there was sufficient evidence-based information to support oral cancer screening by visual and tactile methods as a means to detect cancer in the early stages.3 The report further stated that adjunctive screening devices were no more effective in early detection than a thorough visual and tactile exam. In 2009 Watson et al. looked at a group of patients already diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer to determine if oral/pharyngeal cancer screening examinations done in the general dental office were associated with early detection. The researchers found those patients who had a screening examination within the last year were significantly more likely to have an early stage cancer than those who did not have the examination.4

In March of 2013, Consumer Reports published an article entitled “The cancer tests you need and those you don’t.”5 This article reported oral cancer screening, “A visual exam of the mouth by a dentist or other health-care provider,” as one of the eight screening tests to avoid. The reason given was “Most people don’t need the test unless they are at high risk, because the cancer is relatively uncommon.”5 The article states the recommendation was based on a review of the effectiveness of oral cancer screening by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) which “…found inadequate evidence on the diagnostic accuracy, benefits, and harms of screening for oral cancer. Therefore, the USPSTF cannot determine the balance of benefits and harms of screening for oral cancer in asymptomatic adults.”6 An article, by Burkhart, 2013, addressed the Consumer Reports article. The USPSTF published another version of its recommendation online in Annals of Internal Medicine in November 2013 stating clearly that “This recommendation focuses on screening of the oral cavity performed by primary care providers and not dental providers or otolaryngologists.”7 The ACS and the American Dental Association among others continue to recommend oral cancer examinations as a vital element of routine dental examinations.8,9

The length of time between a patient’s initial consultation with a healthcare provider and a diagnosis of cancer is termed “professional delay.”10 Professional delay may be caused by inadequate clinical skills and knowledge, a low threshold of suspicion, lack of experience, and the presence of non-specific signs/symptoms. Studies by Yu found a delay of as much as 6 months, much longer than expected, from the time of the initial examination to the diagnosis/treatment.11 In addition to professional delay, patients may delay seeking care for many reasons. The most common reasons are lack of knowledge of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer leading to a low level of suspicion, no pain, and fear of the dentist, among others.12,13 Cancer progression is relatively rapid in the oral tissues, and as one would expect, professional and or patient delay results in more late stage diagnoses, more extensive surgery and more radiation and chemotherapy for the patient.

A complete head and neck and intraoral examination is not only important for the early detection of cancer but also for accomplishing a comprehensive assessment of the patient prior to providing dental treatment (Table 1).

Table 1. Objectives of the Head and Neck and Intraoral Examination.
  • Oral cancer screening
  • Determine if the patient is well enough to continue dental treatment
  • Determine the need for medical or other consultations
  • Enable early diagnosis of pathology
  • Determine possible treatment modifications
  • Prepare and record baseline patient assessment information
  • Review and update baseline assessment information
  • Determine if additional diagnostic procedures are necessary-this could include the need for HPV testing depending upon the information presented by the patient. HPV is especially relevant in oral and pharyngeal cancer.

The head and neck examination is often overlooked by busy clinicians but it is as crucial an element of the cancer examination as is the intraoral examination. A thorough head and neck examination is essential for detecting early skin cancers and enlarged lymph nodes that may indicate cancer metastasis. In addition to cancer, manifestations of systemic disease may be observed during routine dental and oral cancer examinations. With the baby boomers reaching retirement age, the number of patients with chronic disease continues to increase. By 2040 about 22% of all Americans, more than 82 million people, will be older than 65 years old.15 The knowledgeable dental professional will be able to identify suspicious manifestations and arrange the appropriate referral for evaluation, and follow-up. Although oral cancer is a disease associated with aging, we have seen a continuing increase of oral cancer diagnoses in patients under age 40 with no known risk factors; HPV 16 included in this age group is a significant increase in cancer of the tongue.17 Current research implicates the human papillomavirus (HPV) as the underlying cause of as many as 72 percent of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinomas with a predominate increase seen in younger white men.18 Persistent HPV infections are the leading cause of oral pharyngeal cancers, specifically HPV 16 and 18 that are classified as high oncogenic/high risk types.43 Practitioners who focus on patients at high risk may miss subtle changes in those patients who have no known risk factors or those who do not fit the perceived profile of oral cancer susceptibility such as those who have not smoked or consumed alcohol. With increases of oral cancer in younger age groups, all patients, regardless of age or presence of risk factors, should be examined for oral cancer. In general, cancer in younger populations tends to be much more aggressive and have a poorer prognosis.27 In a study by Rowan, et al. 2015, participants consisting of dental hygienists and dentists reported that only 73% of respondents included the oropharynx in their oral exam. Less than 50% reported the correct location for the greatest increase in cancer with 40% of all groups indicating that a biopsy from the posterior oropharynx should be tested for HPV.42 The authors recommend continued education on HPV and oral cancer. In an educational intervention by Shukla et al. 2018, the authors provided a toolkit and a post intervention survey. The researchers concluded that over 91.6% of participants increased their knowledge about HPV. They concluded that the educational process gave participants an opportunity to talk to their patients about HPV and also the HPV vaccination and prevention of the virus.42

The purpose of this course is multifold:

  1. to introduce the protocol for a complete oral cancer examination with proper techniques for both the head and neck and intraoral examinations,
  2. to provide patient education information,
  3. to provide information on adjunct technologies that may be utilized in lesion detection and,
  4. to promote informing all patients that they are receiving a complete oral cancer examination.