Screen play: Take steps to prevent oral cancer | Dr. Rich

April is National Oral Cancer Awareness Month. More than 35,000 cases of oral cancer are diagnosed in the United States annually, and more than 45 percent of those will not be alive in five years.

To put it another way, oral cancer kills one person every hour, 24 hours per day, seven days per week in the U.S.

You can you avoid becoming a statistic for this deadly disease by abstaining from tobacco and alcohol use, since 75 percent of all oral cancers are diagnosed in people who use tobacco products. Those who use tobacco and alcohol have an even higher risk. However, there has been a 60-percent increase over the past decade in the number of oral cancer diagnoses in people under the age of 30 with none of the classic risk factors listed, due to a connection with the HPV virus.

Everyone must be screened. While the rates of colon, cervical and prostate cancer have seen major declines in recent years due to early detection through professional screening, the oral cancer survival rate has not increased significantly in the last 50 years. However, if oral cancer is detected and treated in its early stages, the five-year survival rate climbs to 80-90 percent.

Areas of highest risk for oral cancer are the side of the tongue, floor of the mouth and back of the throat, so regular dental visits must include a comprehensive examination of the soft tissues at least annually. All dentists are trained to look and feel for changes that might indicate cancer. Some also have invested in additional diagnostic technology like the Velscope instrument to further evaluate anything that seems out of the ordinary.

An experienced dentist who says they have never seen a case of oral cancer is likely not looking hard enough, according to the statistics. My most gratifying thank-you notes have been from patients who had a small painless spot discovered during our routine dental exam that turned out to be pre-cancerous or an early stage cancer lesion. To read that “you may have saved my life” is both a humbling and rewarding experience.

Further information and resources on oral cancer can be found at

Oral cancer screening saves lives. Commit to making an appointment with your dentist today, and get screened…it may just save your life.


Dr. Stuart Rich, DDS., can be reached at 253-939-6900 or

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