Oral Cancer Screening: Could a Saliva Test Detect the Disease?

Having a professional oral cancer screening once or twice per year, along with performing your own monthly self-checks, improves the chances of detecting signs of the oral pathology early, when cancer is easier to beat.

Oral Cancer Screening Could a Saliva Test Detect the Disease

However, for some patients, symptoms don’t become noticeable until the later stages, when treatment can be more challenging.

A new saliva test may provide a way to address this problem in the future, at the same time giving oral surgeons a better way to determine when patients should have a biopsy.

Biopsy Is the Go-To Method for Detecting Oral Cancer

During an oral cancer screening, an oral surgeon or dentist visually checks mouth tissues for bumps, lesions and changes in color or texture. If the doctor observes a potential abnormality, a biopsy is usually ordered.

A biopsy involves surgically removing tissue and having it lab-tested for cancer cells. The procedure is highly accurate, yet over 90 percent of biopsies are negative. That’s great news for patients, but it also means that in most cases, the invasive surgical procedure was potentially avoidable.

Oral pathology experts advocate erring on the side of caution, as the consequences of missing this disease can be devastating. However, for some biopsies, a significant amount of tissue must be removed. And the biopsy procedure carries some risks, just like any surgery.

New Saliva Test Shows Promise in Oral Cancer Screening

If oral surgeons had an improved method to determine a patient’s risk of having this type of cancer, it would be easier to decide when a biopsy is needed.

Today, a saliva test might be the answer to a more efficient diagnosis for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.

The body responds to cancer by activating certain genes. These genes then direct the cells to produce specific molecules called biomarkers. The saliva test looks for a particular biomarker, a ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule. A high level of RNA molecules in the saliva means that the disease is likely present.

Can the Saliva Test Replace a Biopsy?

The saliva test is pending FDA approval, so medical professionals aren’t yet able to use this promising cancer screening tool. But even after it becomes widely available, the test won’t replace biopsy procedures.

Instead, the saliva test will be most valuable for identifying which patients face a greater risk for developing oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. Oral surgeons will be able to use the results to determine if an immediate biopsy is necessary, or if the procedure can be delayed.

When was your last professional check for oral cancer? If more than six months has passed and you live in the greater Salt Lake City area, make an appointment today with the experts at Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery of Utah.

Dr. Maxfield and Dr. Partridge have extensive experience in oral pathology diagnosis and treatment, and they can instruct you in how to conduct monthly self-checks. Contact our Cottonwood Heights, South Jordan or Tooele office and schedule your professional oral cancer screening today.