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Halt! - Get screened for oral cancer

Published:Monday | April 24, 2017 | 12:00 AMDr Sharon Robinson

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Oral cancer is the sixth most common form of cancer in the world, with a mortality rate of less than 50 per cent at a five-year diagnosis.

According to Dr Irving McKenzie, the chief dental officer at the Ministry of Health and Dean of the University of Technology, College of Oral Health Sciences, the mortality rate of oral cancer in Jamaica is close to 100 per cent.

But why is this? Oral cancer awareness among the Jamaican public is low.

Oral cancer is particularly dangerous because it can go unnoticed by patients. It frequently prospers without producing any pain or symptoms. It can go undetected until it has already metasized (spread) to another location. If it goes undetected and not treated in its early stages, oral cancer can be deadly.


While smoking and tobacco use are still major risk factors, the fastest-growing segment of oral cancer patients consists of young, healthy, non-smoking individuals due to the connection to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

Though we cannot stop this virus from spreading, our only hope is to increase public awareness.

Factors that can increase the risk of oral cancer include:

- Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff, among others;

- Heavy alcohol use;

- Previous oral cancer diagnosis;

- History of significant sun exposure, which increases the risk of lip cancer;

- HPV exposure;

- Age (40 and over);

- Genetics

People with a high risk of oral cancer may be more likely to benefit from oral cancer screening.


- Patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue, usually red or red and white in colour;

- Mouth ulcers that do not go away;

- A sore that does not heal (most common symptom);

- A swelling in the mouth that persists for over three weeks;

- A lump or thickening of the skin or lining of the mouth;

- Pain when swallowing;

- Loosening teeth (tooth) for no clear reason;

- Dentures don't fit properly;

- Jaw pain;

- Jaw stiffness;

- Persistent sore throat;

- A sensation that something is stuck in your throat;

- Painful tongue;

- A hoarse voice.


During an oral cancer screening exam, your dentist looks over the inside of your mouth to check for red or white patches or mouth sores. Using gloved hands, your dentist also feels the tissues in your mouth to check for lumps or other abnormalities.

If you wear complete or partial dentures that are removable, your dentist or doctor will ask you to remove them so that the tissue underneath can be examined.


Some dentists use special tests in addition to the oral exam to screen for oral cancer. Special oral cancer screening tests may involve:

- Rinsing your mouth with a special blue dye before an exam. Abnormal cells in your mouth may take up the dye and appear blue.

- Shining a light in your mouth during an exam. The light makes healthy tissue appear dark and makes abnormal tissue appear white.

If your dentist discovers any signs of mouth cancer or precancerous lesions, he or she may recommend:

- A follow-up visit: in a few weeks to see if the abnormal area is still present and note whether it has grown or changed over time.

- A biopsy procedure: to remove a sample of cells for laboratory testing to determine whether cancer cells are present. Your dentist may perform the biopsy, or you may be referred to a doctor who specialises in oral cancer diagnosis and treatment.

- Dr Sharon Robinson, DDS is an adjunct lecturer at University of Technology College of Oral Health Sciences and has offices in Florida and Jamaica. You may also visit her website at; follow her on facebook @ Dental Place Cosmetix Spa or email her at