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Oral, Head and Neck Pathology

Your oral and maxillofacial surgeon (OMS) is the expert for diagnosing and surgically treating cancer of the head, neck and mouth.

Don’t risk it.
Perform
an oral cancer
self-exam
each month.

It is estimated 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year. Oral cancer’s mortality is particularly high, not because it is hard to detect or diagnose, but because the cancer is often discovered late in its development. Your family dentist or OMS is in the best position to detect oral cancer during your routine dental examinations.

What Does Pathology Mean?

Pathology is any deviation from a healthy, normal condition. Pathologies can mean a lot of different things from tumors or cysts. Tumors can be benign or malignant (cancer). It’s important to know that while oral cancer is an oral pathology, not all oral pathologies are classified as cancer. Classification depends upon where the pathology is – such as in the bone or soft tissue – and sometimes how quickly it appeared. A biopsy will help determine the nature of the condition.

Some of the signs and symptoms of many oral, head and neck pathologies can be detected early – when treatments are most effective. The symptoms include:

  • White patches on oral tissue (leukoplakia)
  • Red patches on oral tissue (erythroplakia)
  • White and red patches on oral tissue (erythroleukoplakia)
  • Sores, spots, lesions and ulcers, particularly those that bleed easily and have failed to heal  
  • Lumps or abnormal thickening of oral tissue
  • Masses or lumps in the neck
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in either side of the neck

Other symptoms to watch for include chronic sore throat or hoarseness and difficulty swallowing or chewing.

While many of these pathologies can be benign, they can increase the risk of cancer if untreated. The presence of some leukoplakias can increase the risk of transforming into cancerous lesions. These lesions may need ongoing management.

While it might be alarming to find a lump or sore, know that it does not automatically indicate the presence of cancer. Your OMS can help diagnose your symptoms – often through a biopsy of the tissue – and determine your treatment plan.

Perform a Self-exam Monthly

Make it a regular routine to perform a self-exam each month. Using a bright light and a mirror, follow these steps:

  • Remove any dentures
  • Look and feel inside the lips and the front of gums
  • Tilt head back to inspect and feel the roof of your mouth
  • Pull the cheek out to see its inside surface as well as the back of the gums
  • Pull out your tongue and look at all of its surfaces
  • Feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes (glands) in both sides of the neck including under the lower jaw

Your mouth is one of your body’s most important early warning systems. If you discover a suspicious lump, sore or lesion, promptly make an appointment for an examination.

Early detection and treatment may well be the key to complete recovery.

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Last updated March 2020

The information provided here is not intended as a substitute for professional medical or dental advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is provided to help you communicate effectively when you seek the advice of your oral and maxillofacial surgeon.