Early Detection of Oral Cancer Can Save Your Life

dental hygienist screens man for oral cancer at a free clinic
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According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, someone dies from oral cancer every hour of every day in the United States alone. This cancer, found in the mouth, lips or throat, is often highly curable if diagnosed and treated early. Unfortunately, in its early stages, oral cancer can go unnoticed.

Those at high risk for oral cancer include tobacco users, African-American men, and heavy drinkers, but anyone can develop oral cancer.

According to the Oral Cancer Consortium, 25 percent of people diagnosed with oral cancer have no risk factors. Studies have also determined there may be a link between HPV (human papilloma virus) and oral cancer.

About Oral Cancers

Mouth cancer typically occurs when cells on your lips or in your mouth develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. These mutations allow cancer cells to continue growing and dividing when healthy cells would die. The mouth cancer cells can form a tumor which may appear in various parts of your mouth such as on the side or under your tongue. With time they may spread to other areas of the mouth and on to other areas of the head and neck or other parts of the body.

Mouth cancers most commonly begin in the flat, thin cells (squamous cells) that line your lips and the inside of your mouth. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.

It's not clear what causes the mutations in squamous cells that lead to mouth cancer.

But doctors have identified factors that may increase the risk of mouth cancer.

Screening for Oral Cancer

Your dentist and hygienist usually screen you for any signs of oral cancer at your regular checkups, but some symptoms of oral cancer can be invisible to the naked eye.

The FDA has approved a device to detect oral cancer called a VELscope.

The VELscope is non-invasive and uses a bright blue light to emphasize any changes in the mouth that a dentist or hygienist could not normally see.

Oral cancer examinations by your dentist are quick, painless and crucial to catching it in its early stages. The American Dental Association explains that during your routine dental checkup, your dentist also visually checks your lips and face for signs of spreading beyond your mouth. In investing oral cancer he or she may also palpate the neck and jaw area, and examine both the top and underside of your tongue. These oral cancer screenings should be performed alongside your dental checkup every six months or if you experience any of the warning signs. 

Dr. Kenneth Magid, a professor at New York University College of Dentistry, states on the Oral Cancer Foundation website, "The problem, for the most part, is that early oral cancer looks like everything else. It looks like a million other injuries and changes in the tissue in the mouth. It's a red spot or a white spot. We see them all the time." But using the VELscope to detect oral cancer can make abnormalities stand out like sore thumbs, according to Dr. Magid.

The Oral Cancer Foundation estimates that 34,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year alone, with only 50 percent still being alive in 5 years.

The problem is much larger worldwide. Even with these statistics, the experts agree that early diagnosis pushes the five-year survival rate to an astonishing 80 percent.

Since oral cancer can affect anyone, without regard to age or gender, it is very important to have regular screenings for this deadly disease. Talk with your dentist about the latest developments and technologies for diagnosing oral cancer.


The Oral Cancer Foundation. "Early Detection Is the Key to Beating Oral Cancer." 18 July 2007.