Detecting Oral Cancer One Massage at a Time


Patients see me coming as I round the wall to enter the hygiene room to start my exams following their cleanings. I jokingly ask, “ready for your mini massage?” I am referring to the extra-oral full head neck exam followed by an intra-oral cancer screening I am about to perform as part of my exam that patients receive twice a year. In reality, these screenings can be lifesaving.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, an estimated 49,750 Americans will be diagnosed with oral oropharyngeal cancer this year, and only about half of those people will be alive in five years. Why is the survival rate not higher? The reason is due to late detection after the cancer has spread.  There are several lymph nodes in the head and neck region; swellings of these nodes are what I am feeling for during your “mini massage”. Lymph nodes are important in the immune system because they filter and remove the bad bacteria and foreign materials; however they can also move cancer cells causing the cancer to spread or metastasize. The good news is that when oral cancer is detected early, patients have an 80-90% survival rate.

So who is at risk? Traditionally, individuals with the highest risk of developing oral cancer were those who smoke, use tobacco products, or consume alcohol heavily. Now, the number of oral cancer linked to the human papilloma virus (HPV) is rising. Men and women are both affected.

The gold standard screening tools, at least currently, are a dentist’s eyes and hands. So next appointment when it is time for your “mini massage” after your cleaning; enjoy the feeling and peace of mind that as a dentist, not only am I caring for your teeth, I could be saving your life.

The Oral Cancer Foundation. American Dental Association., Kelly (2017). The rise of HPV-related oral cancer. AGD Impact. 45(4). April 2017.Breckner, Joana (2017). Detecting oral cancer. The Costco Connection. April 2017.


Elizabeth Rivers, DMD, MPH


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