Bloomington / Normal, IL

Working with the community... for a healthier community.

Life-Saving Five Minutes Oral Cancer, Part 6


By Alexander Germanis

Five minutes can pass very quickly. It’s just 300 little ticks on the clock. In that short period, you can listen to only one song on the radio, take a really quick shower, or heat up a meal in the microwave.

Or, in those five minutes, your life can be saved.

Five minutes is all it takes for a skilled and trained dental hygienist, like Christie, Jill, or Kelly at McLean County Dental, to look for signs of oral cancer in a patient, potentially preventing it from developing or progressing.

Oral cancer, as described in the previous articles of this series, is actually a broader term that applies to cancers of the lips, sinuses, throat, the floor of the mouth, tongue, and palates. It can have myriad causes, including smoking or chewing tobacco, alcohol use, the human papillomavirus (HPV), or lengthy sun exposure.

“When most people think of cancer they think of breast cancer or lung cancer — they don’t think about oral cancer,” shares Jill. “It’s certainly not something you think of when you’re going to the dentist.”

When you’re getting checked for gingivitis and cavities, it is the perfect time to get an oral cancer screening as well. Just as with a dental check-up, a screening every six months is the best way to catch problems before they get worse.

While it is true that many aspects of a dental checkup may be somewhat uncomfortable, the oral cancer screening is not.

“There are eight places we check,” Jill says. “The first thing we do is, with gauze, gently pull the tongue out and look on both sides.”

Next, the back of the throat is checked then the lip is pulled down followed by inspection of the inside of the cheeks and under the tongue.

“Using two fingers, we also feel under the roof of the mouth,” Kelly continues. “It can be a little ticklish.” Palpating of the tongue and feeling the tissues of the mouth and cheeks is done to catch any abnormal lumps that may not be noticeable by sight.

“There are other ways of screening,” Christie adds. “The patient can swish a rinse in their mouth, or we can look inside there with a special light.”

With both the rinse and the light, the hygienists look for indications of abnormal tissue growth. With the rinse, abnormal cells may absorb the dye in the rinse, giving off a blue appearance. Under the light, healthy tissue will appear darker than normal while abnormal tissue will appear white.
Jill, Kelly, and Christie want to reiterate that just because they may find evidence of abnormal tissue during a screening does not mean it is time to panic. A follow-up appointment will most likely be scheduled for two weeks later to see if any issues have resolved themselves. “If it is not healed up when you come back, then we’ll send you to the oral surgeon, and the next step is a biopsy,” says Kelly.

As shocking as the disfiguring results of oral cancer can be, perhaps as equally shocking is how few people catch it in time, simply because they didn’t get screened. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 37,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer each year in the United States alone. Many people do not get screened while many others don’t even go to the dentist regularly.
“Every six months you should get checked,” Jill pleads. “Make sure your dentist and your hygienists are actually doing an oral cancer screening. Some dentists and hygienists don’t. If they’re not doing one, ask them to.”

In the time it takes to listen to one song piped through those office speakers, your dentist or hygienist may save your life.

This is the final article in the series about oral cancer. If you missed the previous articles, you may read them online at or contact Cheryl at 309-664-2524.

For more information or to schedule a dental check-up, you may contact Emil Verban Jr., DDS at 309-662-8448 or visit McLean County Dental is located at 2103 E. Washington Street in Bloomington. Dr. Verban provides his patients both general dentistry expertise and the ability to provide specialized services such as sedation dentistry, cosmetic procedures, and dental implants.