An oral cancer screening is a regular part of patient exams at Mitchell Dental Spa. Oral cancer strikes about 35,000 Americans a year, and someone dies from oral cancer every hour of every day. This makes the death rate for oral cancer higher than that of more frequently discussed cancers like cervical cancer and Hodgkins’s lymphoma.

The death rate for oral cancer is so high, not because it is so difficult to detect, but because it is usually found in the later, advanced stages of development. Oftentimes the cancer is only discovered after it has metastasized to another location like the lymph nodes in the neck. And late detection has a definite downside: The survival rate after 5 years is only 50%.

However, when oral cancer is detected early, the survival rate is 80-90%. Routine examination of the oral cavity by the patient rarely helps, because it is hard for the non-medical professional to spot. Further complicating the situation is the fact that oral cancer is often asymptomatic and does not hurt.

Video: WGN Coverage on Oral Cancer


Oral cancer is a dangerous disease that has a high mortality rate if not diagnosed early in life. WGN interviewed Dr. Margaret Mitchell about the importance of visiting your dentist if you recognize something in your mouth unusual. Detected early, oral cancer has many treatment options.

Enlarge Video View All Videos

Risk Factors

Oral cancer is most often associated with people over the age of 50 who smoke or chew tobacco. In fact, tobacco is involved in over 75% of all oral cancer cases. And alcohol use combined with tobacco increases the risk of cancer.

However, the fastest growing segment of the population being diagnosed with oral cancer is people under 50 who carry human papilloma virus (HPV), particularly version 16. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. and is acquired through genital and oral sex, as well as french kissing. Current estimates by health officials indicate that nearly 80% of sexually active adults will become exposed to HPV at some point in their lives, since 27% of females aged 14-59 carry the virus (45% of women between 20 and 24).

What You Can Do

If you discover an irritated white or red area in the mouth that appears similar to a bite, burn, or cold sore, the best rule here is to see your dentist or oral surgeon if the irritated area persists for over 14 days. Another reason to seek professional help is a lump in the mouth or neck that does not go away within a week or two.

Other things that can be done involve avoiding tobacco and asking your doctor about getting the HPV vaccine, which protects against HPV 6, 11, 16 and 18 (this vaccine is given to females to protect against cervical cancer, but it can be used on males as well).

Finally, insist on an annual oral cancer exam from your dentist.