Routine oral cancer screening can save your life

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

If you follow me on Instagram you probably caught my recent story about a surprising patient experience.


I had a 25 year old male that came to the  office for the first time. His medical and health history was unremarkable; he never smoked, didn’t consume alcohol, had a healthy diet and lifestyle. Despite all this, I was shocked to learn that he had a history of cancer. I inquired more about it, and found out that the patient had a malignant tumor of the parotid gland. This major salivary gland is found towards the back corners of the lower jaw.


The key fact here is that the patient identified an abnormal lump himself. He was casually feeling around his jaw one day and said he felt something odd. After getting multiple opinions, he found a surgeon to remove the tumor. Fortunately, his story has a happy ending. He’s now healthy and thriving.


There are several takeaways from this patient’s experience:


1. Cancer doesn’t discriminate based on age. This patient was just 21 years old when he got his diagnosis. Let that sink in for a moment.


2. Lifestyle increases the risk for cancer but doesn’t eliminate the risk! Smoking, drinking alcohol, and using recreational drugs increase your risk for oral cancer. But that doesn’t mean that the absence of these lifestyle habits make your risk zero! This patient never smoked, drank alcohol or used drugs and still had a malignant tumor that needed to be surgically removed.


3.  Self exams can save your life The patient noticed something that he never felt before and alerted his medical doctor. If he hadn’t screened himself, there’s no telling how long he would have gone without getting diagnosed. Periodically check yourself by pulling down your lower lip, sticking out your tongue, opening your mouth wide to check the back of your throat. Feel your lymph nodes and take a special look at any moles. You’re looking for anything that doesn’t look or feel right. Pay special attention if you see something that’s not bilateral (for example, a red spot on one side of your tongue but not the other).  4. Your dentist should be performing routine oral cancer screenings It is the standard of care for dentists to perform routine oral cancer screenings. This means they are checking the soft tissue inside your mouth, your throat, and palpating your lymph nodes. They may also employ a diagnostic device to perform the screening. If your dentist is not performing these exams, ask why not or find a new dentist who will.


5. Know your normal!  It’s critical to establish a baseline for yourself. For example, if you have a dark spot on your gum that’s been there for 20 years and hasn’t changed, it’s likely not something you have to worry about. But something that is newly formed, changing over time, or starts to have symptoms like pain or pus should be evaluated by a dentist as soon as possible.


6. When in doubt, see a dentist. 

Small changes in suspicious lesions can mean a big change at a microscopic, cellular level. Don’t monitor something that seems odd to you; instead, it’s prudent to have an expert take a look and rule out anything more serious.