An oral cancer screening ‘can be lifesaving’

A patient sitting in a dental chair smiles while the dentist behind her is arranging dental tools for an exam.
UT Dentistry's General Dentistry Clinic provides preventive and routine dental services, restorative procedures and cosmetic dentistry from dedicated, experienced dentists.

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month

Contact: Steven Lee, 210-450-3823,
Content contributed by Kristen Zapata

SAN ANTONIO, April 23, 2024 – Oral and oropharyngeal cancers account for more than 58,000 new cancer cases each year in the U.S. alone, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Early detection is crucial for successful treatment, making routine dental checkups more than about clean teeth and fresh breath.

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and dentists can play a vital role in identifying oral cancer at its early stages, significantly improving the odds of their patients overcoming the condition.

What and how?

Oral cancer can affect any part of the mouth, including the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate or gums.

“Risk factors for developing oral cancer include tobacco from the use of cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, hookah or betel quid,” said Tiffany Tavares, DDS, DMSc, clinical assistant professor of oral medicine with the School of Dentistry at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio).  “Alcohol consumption is another risk factor as is a chronically weak immune system, a previous history of cancer or cancer in the family.”

a stock photo of a glass of alcohol and a stack of cigarettes.Tavares said that radiation exposure to the head and neck area is another risk factor for oral cancer as well as certain conditions such as oral lichen planus, a chronic inflammatory disease, and contact with certain human papillomavirus strains, also referred to as HPV, that are sexually transmitted.

“The outer lip is susceptible to cancer as well and the main risk factor is sun exposure,” she said.

It’s essential to be aware that oral cancer can also occur in individuals with no known risk factors.

Signs and early detection

“Because general dentists and registered dental hygienists see the vast majority of dental patients, they are in a unique position to screen for oral cancer,” said Brian Secrist, DDS, a dentist at UT Dentistry’s General Dentistry Clinic.

A dentist performs an oral examination on a patient in the dental chair.
Brian Secrist, DDS, performs an oral examination on a patient at UT Dentistry.

During a regular dental checkup, dental professionals conduct a comprehensive examination of each patient’s mouth, including a visual inspection of the oral tissues. They are trained to recognize early signs and symptoms of oral cancer, such as lesions, chronic sore throat or hoarseness, difficulty chewing or swallowing and swelling or numbness in the mouth or jaw. Secrist said this training is conducted throughout a dentist’s and dental hygienist’s career through continuing education courses.

One of the key indicators of oral cancer is the presence of lesions, an area of abnormal tissue.

While most mouth sores are harmless and often heal within a week or two, dentists pay close attention to any sores that persist for more than two weeks. These lesions may appear as red or white patches, ulcers, lumps or thickening tissues in the mouth.

“In my opinion it is imperative that both the hygienist and the dentists perform a head and neck cancer screening during their regularly scheduled dental cleaning,” Secrist said. “It’s painless yet vital in assessing the overall dental health of each patient. If something in the mouth looks suspicious, it needs further investigation, whether having another look-see in two to four weeks or immediate referral to the oral medicine team here at UT Dentistry.”

Personal awareness

It’s equally important for individuals to understand how they can lower their risk for developing oral cancer.

A dentist and his patient are talking after the exam.“Practice tobacco cessation in all its forms, avoid alcohol consumption and adopt a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables to lower your risk for developing oral cancer,” said Tavares. “To help reduce the risk for lip cancer, avoid sun exposure, apply lip balms with SPF protection and wear hats when exposed to sunlight.”

By partnering with a dentist for regular oral health care and staying vigilant to any health changes, patients are taking proactive steps to safeguard themselves against oral cancer and ensure early detection and treatment if needed.

“A screening only takes a minute or two and can be lifesaving,” Secrist said.

Visit the UT Dentistry General Dentistry Clinic online or call 210-567-6453 to make a dental appointment today.


The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) is one of the country’s leading health science universities and is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. With missions of teaching, research, patient care and community engagement, its schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions, graduate biomedical sciences and public health have graduated more than 42,550 alumni who are leading change, advancing their fields and renewing hope for patients and their families throughout South Texas and the world. To learn about the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit

The UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry offers 18 degrees and programs in both dentistry and dental hygiene, world-renown faculty educators, a diverse student population, state-of-the-art clinical facilities and a distinguished research enterprise. Departments include comprehensive dentistry, developmental dentistry, endodontics, periodontics, and oral and maxillofacial surgery. Scientists collaborate with clinicians and research teams worldwide, and work across multiple medical and dental disciplines to find new treatments, advancing knowledge of oral health, biomaterials, cancer, pain and more. To learn more, visit

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