Importance of Early Detection

Wendy Parker, RDH

Importance of Early Detection

It seems like nowadays there is a holiday for every thing and every reason.  But one we can’t ignore is April being Oral Cancer Awareness Month.  It’s so important, it doesn’t get just a day to be recognized, it gets it’s own month!

As dental professionals in our offices, when you come in for your routine dental visit, we always offer and want you to be aware that we do a basic oral cancer screening for you.  There is one other screening we offer, called Identify, that helps us detect tissues on the cellular level through a light source, to identify areas that may need further attention. The dental hygienist or dentist will look at all the areas in your mouth, including your tongue on the sides and in the back, and the roof of your mouth. They will also check for any swelling along the neck.  Each and every patient should be screened regardless of age or habits.

Another way to identify a possible oral cancer lesion is to be aware of what is in your own mouth.  As mentioned in a previous post by Amanda Orvis, RDH, she gave suggestions on how to do a self-cancer screen.  Look at your tongue, the tissues of your cheeks and around the teeth.  If you notice something like a red or white patch, take note of the appearance.  If the lesion doesn’t go away after 2-3 weeks, go see your dentist for his opinion.  He may check the area again after 2-3 weeks or he may refer you to a specialist to have the area evaluated.

“There is much that can be done for those who are diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Since early detection and treatment is critical, it’s important to see your dentist regularly and to promptly see a medical professional if there are any warnings signs,” — The Oral Cancer Foundation

Oral cancer symptoms:

Persistent mouth sore: A sore in the mouth that does not heal is the most common symptom of oral cancer

Pain: Persistent mouth pain is another common oral cancer sign

A lump or thickening in the cheek

A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth

A sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat that does not go away

Difficulty swallowing or chewing

Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue

Numbness of the tongue or elsewhere in the mouth

Jaw swelling that makes dentures hurt or fit poorly

Loosening of the teeth

Pain in the teeth or jaw

Voice changes

A lump in the neck

Weight loss

Persistent bad breath

Again, if you notice any of these things, come into the office and get things checked out.  The earlier oral cancer is identified, the better the outcome.

According to the American Cancer Society, “A relative survival rate compares people with the same type and stage of cancer to people in the overall population. For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate for a specific stage of cancer is 90%, it means that people who have that cancer are, on average, about 90% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.”

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Oral Cancer Self-exams

Amanda Orvis, RDH

Monthly Oral Cancer Self-exams

The prevalence of oral cancer is on the rise; in fact one person dies per hour from oral cancer. In the early stages oral cancer can often times go unnoticed. It can be painless and not obvious to the naked eye. The most common areas for oral cancer are the floor of the mouth and the sides of the tongue. That being said, oral cancer can be found in various locations as well as a variety of shapes, colors, textures, and sizes. It is important that you perform monthly oral self-exams. If you notice any suspicious areas that do not go away within ten to fourteen days make an appointment with your dentist to have them checked. Remember early detection saves lives. 

How to perform a monthly self-exam 


  • Take a moment to look at the skin on your face and neck in the mirror. Look for any changes in the color of your skin, any changes in moles or beauty marks, any swelling, any lumps or sores. 
  • Use both hands to gently feel along the outside of your cheeks, your lower jaw bone, your jaw joint, in front of and behind both ears. Check for any areas that do not feel uniform on both sides, and check for any lumps or areas that are swollen or tender. 
  • Remove any removable dentures or appliances from your mouth. 
  • Check the roof of your mouth for changes in color or texture. Use your index finger to lightly sweep the roof of your mouth to feel for any lumps or swelling. 
  • Pull up your upper lip and then pull down your lower lip looking for any changes in color or texture.
  • Open wide and look at the back of your mouth and your throat for any changes in color, size and/or texture.
  • Stick out your tongue and check all the surfaces (top, underneath, and both sides of your tongue), as well as the floor of your mouth looking for any changes in color, size and/or texture in the oral tissue. 
  • Look at your gums throughout your mouth for any change in color and/or texture. Run a finger around all the surfaces of your gums feeling for any swollen or tender areas.

What to look for specifically: 

  • White patches or spots
  • Red patches or spots 
  • Sores that fail to heal 
  • Lumps, bumps or masses 
  • Any areas that are differ from one side to another 

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Click to access 7231_Oral_Cancer_Fact_Sheet_1.pdf