Melissa Magstadt, South Dakota Secretary of Health

Have you had an oral cancer exam?

Oral cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the United States and the most serious disease of the oral cavity. Within the hour, someone in the US will die from oral cancer. Another will die the next hour, and so on, every hour of every day. Only 52% of oral cancer patients survive 5 years post-diagnosis, due largely to poor rates of early detection. (

In 2017, an estimated 49,670 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed in the US, with the disease claiming more than 9,700 lives. In South Dakota, an average of 22 people died annually from oral cancer spanning the years from 2010-2014.

Oral cancer's reach is also broadening to include young people with no history of the chief risk factors, tobacco or alcohol use. Exposure to HPV is the fastest growing risk factor for oral cancer, due mostly to the increased spread of the human papilloma virus (HPV) to the oral cavity through sexual activity.

Prognosis depends on when oral cancer is diagnosed and at what stage. Early detection and prevention is key to reducing the morbidity and mortality rate. All dental exams should include an oral cancer exam, consisting of a thorough visual and manual examination of the mouth, lips, gums, cheeks, throat, pharynx and tongue. People who use tobacco, alcohol, or are outdoors frequently should learn to do a self-cancer screening since these factors place them in a high-risk category.

Often the initial cancer lesion is painless. If you have any of the following signs which do not resolve or disappear in 14 days, see your dentist:

  • A red, white, or red/white speckled patch that doesn't wipe off or go away
  • A sore that bleeds easily and won’t heal
  • A lump or thickening anywhere in the mouth or neck
  • Pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips
  • A change in the way the teeth fit together
  • Trouble chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue.

Before cancer therapy, schedule a dental exam to address any untreated dental problems. The dental clinic will inform you of oral complications that may arise due to chemotherapy or radiation treatment, such as decreased saliva and dry mouth symptoms, that can increase tooth decay. The clinic can offer suggestions for treating mouth sores due to chemotherapy or decreased saliva from head and neck radiation treatments. Using gum or lozenges can increase the amount of saliva and soothe your dry mouth tissue (Avoid sugar-sweetened lozenges such as lemon drops). Numerous artificially sweetened gums, mouth drops, and lozenges available, along with products containing Xylitol are available and better for your oral health.



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