Dental Health Topics

Preventing and Screening for Oral Cancer

Slightly more than half the 48,250 Americans diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year will not survive past their five-year mark diagnosis anniversary. This grim statistic “has not significantly improved in decades,” and diagnosis rates continue to rise – particularly in younger populations. Let’s take a look at how your dentist can be a strategic ally in protecting you against this relatively unfamiliar form of cancer.


Understanding oral cancer’s associated risk factors is the most important step to avoiding the disease. You’re likely all too familiar with each of them:
  • Tobacco: Whether you’re smoking it, dipping it, or chewing it, tobacco is harmful to the delicate tissues within the oral cavity. Quitting now, as opposed to never quitting, is perhaps more beneficial than you may believe – decreasing oral cancer risk by about 50% after 3-5 years of abstinence from smoking.
  • Alcohol: It’s difficult to assess the impact alcohol has on one’s risk of oral cancer because it’s greatest threat is seen when smoking and alcohol consumption are combined. In fact, “heavy” smokers who also drink “heavily” are experiencing an even greater level of risk as the two work synergistically, doing more harm together than they do separately.
  • Sun Exposure: Broad-spectrum sunscreens and sunblocks should be used when outdoors – particularly during prolonged intervals. Ask your dermatologist for their recommendation as to which product is best for you.


Screening for disease is a complicated adventure. False positives, and false negatives are a possibility, as are over or under diagnoses. It’s worth noting this is a concern with any sort of screening, and not just oral cancer screening. Mammograms, and PSA tests for prostate cancer carry the same complications, for example.

It’s for this reason the American Cancer Society and other international cancer bodies avoid stating that screening increases survival rates. That said, the Oral Cancer Foundation believes increased awareness and meaningful screening will show its effectiveness over time.

The simplest screening test is conducted each time you visit your dentist when they peer into your mouth. There’s a lot that can be seen in that “room” that houses your teeth and tongue. Next time you’re in for a visit, ask them how things look!