Oral Cancer Awareness Month

The warm weather may not be here, but Spring and April are, which is Oral Cancer Awareness Month.   It is estimated that 50,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer each year in the US, which is the sixth most common cancer and accounts for 3 percent of all cancers.  Around 9,000 people will die every year in the US, which is one person an hour of every day, according to The Oral Cancer Foundation.

Oral cancer is particularly dangerous and its mortality rate are high because it can go undetected for years and by the time it is discovered it is late in its development.  This is why the general dentist community is the first line of defense against oral cancer.  Understanding the risks factors and visiting your general dentists regular can help detect oral cancer at an early stage.

How can my dentist help?

As general dentists we not only screen our patients for tooth decay (cavities) we also screen for oral cancer during every dental visit and check up.  We feel for lumps or irregular tissues changes in your neck, head, cheeks, and oral cavity.  A thorough examination of the soft tissue in your mouth, where we looks for sores or discolored tissue.  At Soft Touch Laser Dentistry we use screening devices like VELscope, which uses natural tissue fluorescence to help screen for tissue abnormalities.  See the photo provided for what we can see using the VELscope device.  The VELscope is a completely painless test.

What are the risks factors for oral cancer?

Oral cancer has several risks factors that can effect all ages and demographics.  They include tobacco use, alcohol use, sun exposure (lips), previous head and neck cancer diagnosis and human papilloma virus (HPV16) infection.  The spread of HPV as a common sexual transmitted disease has particularly become a major concern amongst the dental community.  Historically the majority of people diagnoses with oral cancer are over the age of 40, however, because of the spread of HPV it is now occurring more frequently in those under this age.  In fact, incidence of oral cancer associated with HPV it is up 15 percent since 1970. It has been also shown that those who smoke and drink have a 15 times greater chance of developing oral cancer. Oral cancer is 2 times more common in men than women.

What can you do to prevent oral cancer?

The American Cancer Society set out goals and guidelines to help Americans reduce their risk of cancer.  Those guidelines include:

  • Eating a variety of healthy foods, with an emphasis on plant sources
  • Adopt a physical active lifestyle
  • Maintain a healthful weight throughout life
  • Limit consumption of alcoholic drinks
  • Never smoke or Vape

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all preteen boys and girls ages 11 to 12 should be vaccinated for HPV.  Routine dental check ups can also aid in screening for oral cancer.

Can you screen for oral cancer yourself?

Absolutely, you can preform a six-step oral cancer screening each month using a mirror and a bright light.

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

You should be looking for any white or red patches, sores that fail to heal in a week's time.  Difficulty swallowing or a mass or lump in the neck can also be a sign.  Oral cancer can be painless in its early stages, so if you observe any of the above findings please go to your dentist immediately. 

How is oral cancer treated?

Methods of treatment for oral cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy.  This treatment is determined in congestion with your physician.

It is important that not just your general dentist screen for oral cancer, but your hygienist, the entire dental team, and you.  Becoming more aware of the risks factors and education is always the first steps to increasing your own understanding of oral cancer.

Video from the American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons:


  1. “Oral Cancer Facts.” NYU Oral Cancer Center, www.nyuoralcancer.org/oral_cancer/oral_cancer_facts.html. Access 15 April 2018
  2. “Oral Cancer Facts.” The Oral Cancer Foundation, https://oralcancerfoundation.org/facts/. Access 15 April 2018
  3. “Raise Oral Cancer Awareness.” American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, https://www.aaoms.org/media/raise-oral-cancer-awareness. Access 15 April 2018
  4. Kushi, L. H., Byers, T., Doyle, C., Bandera, E. V., Mccullough, M., Gansler, T., . . . Thun, M. J. (2006). American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention: Reducing the Risk of Cancer With Healthy Food Choices and Physical Activity. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 56(5), 254-281. doi:10.3322/canjclin.56.5.254