Check Your Mouth to Stop Oral Cancer

Patti DiGangi, RDH
Photo courtesy of the Oral Cancer Foundation.


Photo courtesy of the Oral Cancer Foundation.

April has arrived with thoughts of spring, flowers, and new beginnings. But did you know that it’s also Oral Cancer Awareness Month? And why did we just cross out the word cancer?

In 2010, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center changed its logo to indicate its intention to strike out the disease. This approach can be seen in its ads, public service announcements, signage in airports, and more. Also, its TV and radio ads bleep the word out. This practice raised awareness for a while.

Now it’s time for something new. The Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF) is bringing dentistry and the public an innovative idea with its Check Your Mouth Campaign. Perhaps by getting patients involved in detection, we can finally start seeing positive changes in the mortality and morbidity of oral cancer.

Be Part of the Change 

Approximately 51,550 people in the United States will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2018. For more than a decade, there has been an increase in the rate of occurrence of oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Clearly, all of our preaching about early detection is not changing the statistics.

Never before has opportunistic screening and public awareness been more important. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over thinking we will get a different outcome. It’s time to learn from others’ successes, and the OCF is asking each of us to be part of the change. The ways you can make a difference are many and varied.

Check Your Mouth

The Check Your Mouth campaign aims to create an informed public that will be able to self-discover abnormalities that may be dangerous. Early discovery in most cancers, and in oral cancer specifically, leads to less invasive treatments and ultimately better long-term outcomes and survival.

A simple Check Your Mouth Kit includes a mirror, light source, and gauze that can be purchased for $20. A video then tells patients what to both look and feel for. Its website teaches patients to start their self-examination on the outside with their neck, just as we professionals must do to check their lymph nodes.

As we know, there are multiple reasons why lymph nodes can swell and be tender, often due to infection. At the same time, this swelling also can be related to cancer. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States and is thought to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers.

The Check Your Mouth site then takes the patients through seven thorough steps to check inside their mouth, both through palpation and by using the mirror, light, and gauze. A photo gallery is available so people can compare what they find to previous cases.

The final part of the instructions tells patients: “Your job is to find things. It is the job of a professional to determine that what you discover, which has met the criteria of persisting for more than 2 to 3 weeks, is dangerous or not.” This is where we, the professionals, come in.

Are We Ready?

Before you offer oral cancer screenings, ask yourself the following questions:

• Do you have calibrated screening protocols for all of the clinicians in your practice?

• Do you have adjunctive technologies available for another step in the detection process?

• Do you have Lexicomp’s Oral Soft Tissues Diseases visually cued manual to support the diagnosis and management of oral soft tissue diseases? Or Lexicomp’s VisualDX Complete online tools?

• Who and where will you refer your patients to when needed?

• Do you have rehabilitation* protocols for patients with cancer? 

Also, all dental practices need to tell their patients about the Check Your Mouth Campaign in their newsletters, on their websites, and in person at the office. We can be part of the change.

* Rehabilitation is a process designed to improve a person’s physical and psychological health in anticipation of an upcoming stressor. It occurs after diagnosis but before treatment. It is a proactive versus reactive approach.   

Ms. DiGangi believes dentistry is no longer just about fixing teeth. Dentistry is oral medicine. Her work helps dental professionals embrace the opportunities and understand the metrics that accurate insurance coding provides. In fact, the ADA recognized her expertise by inviting her to write a chapter in its CDT 2017 and 2018 Companion books. Patti holds publishing and speaking licenses with the ADA for Current Dental Terminology, 2018 as well as SNODENT, 2018 diagnostic coding. She is the author of DentalCodeology, which is a series of easy-to-read, bite-sized books. Her latest brand extension, The Dental Codeologist Community, was launched in August 2017. Dental Codeologists have a voice and choose to shape the future of coding and healthcare. She can be reached at

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