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Don’t Skip This Screening. An Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Screening Could Save Your Life

Doctor checks patient's neck for lumpsApril is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and April 10–16, 2016, is Oral Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week, which are sponsored by the Oral Cancer Foundation and Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, respectively.

In 2016, about 48,250 people in the United States will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer—the largest group of cancers that fall into the head and neck category.[1] The five-year survival rate for those diagnosed with oral and throat cancers is slightly more than 64 percent.[2]

However, early detection and treatment can make a big difference. Oral cancers have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate when found early, but when found in the late stages, which is when most oral cancers are diagnosed, they have a very high death rate of about 43 percent at five years from diagnosis.[3]

Who is at high risk for oral, head and neck cancer?

The two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers are tobacco and alcohol use—this is said to cause at least 75 percent of head and neck cancers.[4]

Additional risk factors for various types of oral, head and neck cancers may include, but are not limited to, the following[5]:

  • Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV-1
  • Use of paan (betel quid)
  • Consumption of maté
  • Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood
  • Poor oral hygiene and missing teeth
  • Occupational exposure to wood dust as well as industrial exposures to asbestos and synthetic fibers, wood or nickel dust, and formaldehyde
  • Working in certain jobs in the construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging and food industries
  • Radiation exposure to the head and neck
  • Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus
  • Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry

It is recommended, however, that everyone get screened annually for oral, head and neck cancers.[6] Your healthcare provider may suggest a different frequency based on your risk and health history.

Where to get a professional screening

Your dentist or doctor can perform oral, head and neck cancer screenings during a preventive care appointment or another office visit.[7]

The screening is quick, and your healthcare provider will[8]:

  • Visually examine your head, neck, face and mouth for masses, lesions and swelling, as well as any facial asymmetry
  • Compare both sides of your neck for signs of enlargement
  • Feel for enlarged lymph nodes
  • Listen to your voice—a hoarse and raspy voice can be a symptom of a tumor

To see if your health or dental insurance plan covers the screening, contact your insurance provider.

Free screenings may be available within your community year-round, depending on where you live. However, they tend to be most prevalent during Oral Cancer Awareness Month and Oral Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week.

To find a free screening event near you, check:

You can learn more about oral, head and neck cancer symptoms at, and, to name a few online resources. But, of course, you should ask questions and bring any concerns to the attention of your healthcare provider.

Perform self-exams throughout the year, in between visits to the dentist and doctor. Six-Step Screening provides a step-by-step guide to intra and extra oral self-screenings: Or, watch the instructional video below from the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons:



If you notice anything unusual, experience changes in your health or have concerns about oral, head and neck cancers at any point, schedule an appointment with your doctor or dentist as soon as possible.


[1] The Oral Cancer Foundation.

[2] National Cancer Institute. “Head and Neck Cancers.” Last reviewed Feb. 1, 2013.

[3] The Oral Cancer Foundation.

[4] National Cancer Institute. “Head and Neck Cancers.” Last reviewed Feb. 1, 2013.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “Regular Screening Can Help Detect Oral, Head and Neck Cancers.” April 14, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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