May 21, 2019

Historically, oral cancer has shown up in a consistent and somewhat predictable segment of the population. Around 75% of the incidents have been correlated with the long-term use of tobacco. Most of the patients have been over 40 – 50 years old.

These statistics are changing. Non-smokers under the age of 50 are now the fastest growing oral cancer population.

What is happening?

Human papillomavirus 16 (HPV16) is taking the stage and quickly becoming one of the primary causative agents of oral cancers. The Oral Cancer Foundation considers this a paradigm shift: a new and completely unique cause of oral cancer that is independent from heavy drinking and smoking. Additionally, studies indicate that diets low in fruits and vegetables are also factors of risk.

The biggest danger with oral cancers is how easily they go unnoticed and therefore untreated. Almost 10,000 people in the US die each year from this disease. Why? They are generally discovered too late in their development.

Oral cancers are not particularly hard to discover or diagnose. It is true that there are some versions that arrive veiled, causing very little physical changes in the mouth and instigate little to no pain or alarm. Other versions produce telltale signs.


  • a new red or white patch on the tongue or gums
  • a thick or hard spot, or lump that has developed in the mouth
  • a sore that bleeds easily or doesn’t heal
  • a roughened or crusted area
  • numbness
  • pain or tenderness
  • a change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite down
  • problems chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue or jaw

There is currently no comprehensive program in the US to opportunistically screen for the disease and this makes late stage discovery more common.

The most effective measure of preventing late-stage discovery of oral cancer is staying diligent and consistent with routine dental checkups. Oral cancer screenings are the initial and routine part of every single one of our dental and hygiene appointments. Although on the surface we may think of dental appointments as “something that we’re supposed to do,” these visits are valuable opportunities to have our mouths examined by professionals who assess the conditions and health of many mouths everyday. In other words: dentists are trained for this. They know what to look for; if they have been in practice for long enough they have probably seen it all before.

Furthermore, it is the doctors due diligence to report and act on anything that looks out of the ordinary. If one of our doctors notices something suspicious in the mouth or on a patients x-ray it is their moral and legal responsibility to not only share their suspicions with the patient but additionally to provide recommendations on how to move forward.

A dentist may suggest getting a CAT scan in order to review a more substantial picture of the jawbone or area that is in question. An additional approach to unfamiliar or suspect findings in the mouth is taking a biopsy. A biopsy involves removing a sample of these tissues and sending them in for extensive laboratory testing carried out by specialized pathologists.

Luckily, oral cancers can be caught early. Such early recognition requires mindfulness and participation on behalf of both the individual and the dental professional. If you notice anything suspect in you or your loved one’s mouth please visit a dental professional today for a second opinion. This is not a matter to put off until months’ end!

Bell Harbour Dental in Downtown Seattle is a family owned, patient-first dental practice in the heart of Downtown, Seattle. Check us on out Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or contact us today to assist you in taking initiative towards vibrant dental health!

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