Oral cancer kills more than 9,750 people each year in the United States or about one person every hour.

The key to preventing deaths and serious consequences from oral cancer is early detection, and to raise awareness. Milwaukee VA Medical Center dentists will host a virtual information session for its Veterans later this month.

Drs. Kristine Schedler and David Kachelmeyer will discuss the types of oral cancer, the causes and symptoms, how to prevent it and what people can do to maintain a healthy mouth.

“Just like for all cancers, early detection is important,” Schedler says. “That can really have a positive impact on outside treatment outcomes.”

Schedler noted that oral cancer is difficult for people to detect on their own because it can occur in hard-to-see areas inside the mouth, such as the back of the tongue or near the tonsils.

Difficulty swallowing may be an indicator

A sore or lump that doesn’t clear up in due time, or difficulty swallowing, may be indicators. “Don’t ignore those symptoms. Definitely get them looked at,” Schedler added.

Early detection is key to preventing death and serious consequences from oral cancer.

Kachelmeyer said some of his colleagues in the Milwaukee VA dental clinic have detected lesions that were found to be cancerous. And the effects of oral cancer can be devastating.

“To have oral cancer really affects the psychological state and the quality of life,” Kachelmeyer said. “It can lead to tongue resections, tooth loss and major issues affecting appearance, talking, functioning and things we take for granted.”

Causes of oral cancer

So what causes oral cancer? There are three major high-risks behaviors: smoking, chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol. But those aren’t the only contributors. There are others, including viral infection.

“The population of people at risk has increased and you may not know if you’ve been exposed to those viruses,” she said, noting a link between HPV and oral cancer.

Schedler says HPV may be a significant factor in more younger people developing oral cancer. There is a vaccine for HPV which is recommended for children around age 11, though it can also be given to young adults.

“We want to broaden the net to not only educate and spread awareness but also offer screenings for Veterans who receive dental care,” Schedler said. Those screenings aren’t available yet due to ongoing pandemic restrictions, but the dentists hope to offer them in the near future.

Regular checkups

Detecting possible oral cancer is one more reason why people need to have regular checkups twice a year.

“Seeing your dentist regularly will already decrease the chances that something goes undetected. Good oral health – brushing and flossing regularly – are the best ways to prevent oral cancer.

And people with dentures still need to see their dentists regularly.

“We recommend they be seen at least once a year and a big part of that is to do an oral cancer screening,” he said.

“Everything in dentistry comes down to prevention, seeing your dentist and doing your job at home. Brushing and flossing are the keys to preventing a lot of these dental problems.

“A clean, healthy mouth definitely decreases your risk for a lot of problems.”

Signs and symptoms or oral cancer

  • Any sore that does not heal within 14 days.
  • A red, white, or black discoloration of the soft tissues of the mouth.
  • Any abnormality that bleeds easily when touched.
  • A lump or hard spot in the tissue, usually border of the tongue.
  • Tissue raised above that which surrounds it, a growth.
  • A sore under a denture, which even after adjustment of the denture, that does not heal.
  • A lump or thickening that develops in the mouth.
  • A painless, firm, fixated lump felt on the outside of the neck, which has been there for at least two weeks.
  • Sensation that something is stuck in the throat when swallowing or other difficulty in swallowing.
  • Ear pain that occurs on one side only.
  • Unexplained numbness in the mouth or lips.
  • Hoarseness or sore throat that does not resolve within a few weeks.

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month.

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29 Comments

  1. Fioritto Family Dental May 16, 2021 at 12:37 am

    Thank you for bringing this to light and thank you to all those who shared their stories. As with all cancer, early detection is the key to beating this horrific disease. Signs and symptoms of oral cancer listed in your post should be shared by all readers with their friends and family.

  2. Shea Fleming May 11, 2021 at 5:26 pm

    I’m reading all these stories, and know I haven’t been alone ever in this dental regard, Uncle Sam wouldn’t even help us while in the service, I honestly couldn’t believe they would not fix my teeth.I had mine all cut out at$100 to $140 a piece, that is what cost,Our members of Government have to have term limits, thousand and thousands of Americans would like to participate in their country,those men and women will stay there til the day they die, We are a great country,but we are still behind on some of the most basic things still,I will die before term limits, mass arbitrary drug incarceration gets any better, and other things, I love America but the greedy get more greedy

  3. Patricia DeVore April 29, 2021 at 10:07 am

    Additionally, why did the VA previously acknowledge the importance of access to proper dental care and treatment is for our nations Veterans by launching the VA Dental Pilot program in March of 2019 only to appear before the House of Representatives in 2020 to OPPOSE the passing of the previous Veteran dental Bill H.R. 96 sighting the VA can not afford the cost to provide dental care to all Veterans? That makes absolutely no sense!! The bottom line is the VA can not afford not to give All Veterans access to dental care through the VA because it would result ultimately in saving Veterans lives first and foremost however it would result in healthier Vets overall medical health too which it would also save VA dollars because it would reduce the medical related diseases and illnesses that are caused by the lack of oral care and dental care cause for so many of our nations Veterans.

  4. Patricia DeVore April 29, 2021 at 9:47 am

    Thank you for your acknowledgment the importance of oral care in an attempt to prevent our nations Veterans from possible suffering from or dying from oral cancers however you need to take it a step further. We also have many Veterans dying across this country from staph infections that were the result of untreated tooth or gum infections. The VA currently only provides any type of dental care to approximately 8% of the total Veteran population. Therefore we have the majority of our Nations Veterans left without any assistance to help them to get access to the dental treatment so many of them so desperately need but many simply can not afford it!! Therefore we have Veterans suffering from a variety of dental and medical health issues including heart disease etc. as a result of the lack of dental care. A poor Smile or the inability to chew and digest their food properly also only adds to the decline in some Veterans mental health too or adds to their existing PTSD issues!! Unfortunately we have witnessed first hand Veterans suffering from untreated oral cancers and we’ve also learned of many of our nations Veterans pulling out their own teeth with pliers because they are uninsured, unemployed and financially indigent and no dental benefits through the VA!! That is totally unacceptable!! We ALL need to reach out to our Legistlative Representatives to encourage them to cosponsor this vital Veterans legislation H.R.914 so All Veterans have access to both preventative dental care and dental treatment through the VA!! They ALL Served, They ALL Deserve including their Smiles too!!

  5. Mark Weiman April 27, 2021 at 9:54 pm

    1, I have been accused of being a fiscal conservative.
    2. I recognize that good dental care has a positive affect on overall health.
    3. I recognize that Veterans have done so many good things for all of us.
    4. I know that if we keep Veterans healthy they will be more able to do good things for us in the future if their “special set of
    skills” is needed.
    Lets support HR 914 and save money and keep our Veterans healthy.

  6. LEE BEAR April 27, 2021 at 4:08 pm

    Neither does anyone else.

  7. Francine O'Connor April 27, 2021 at 2:25 pm

    I greatly appreciate David’s comments regarding oral cancer. Thank you.
    As a long time VA nurse at a major urban hospital, I have witnessed mandated oral/dental exams sadly being terminated. Each of my patients in inpatient Psychiatry was escorted to the Dental Clinic – until 1990 -upon each hospitalization to check specifically for oral cancer due to the “military-acquired” habits of smoking and drinking. I am not aware of the findings, but be certain that preventive examination and diagnosis most definitely might well eliminate acute surgical procedures which also affect quality of self esteem and general quality of life. Early diagnosis also is more cost effective in the long run. I do not believe that we need to think of dollars and cents when veterans Healthcare is concerned but that is the story of many bills now in Congress ~ like the dental bill HR 914 which would treat dental as any medical matter. This bill has been reintroduced twice now with insufficient cosponsorship of our representatives in the House. Even Mike Bost, (R-IL) who is a military veteran, has recently refused to sign onto the bill due to the “expense”. Has he forgotten his oath to take care of the guy behind him too?
    This bill HR 914 also needs to be nonpartisan : our veterans did not sign up for any political party when they joined the military and fought in Viet Nam, Korea, Afghanistan.
    I am now retired after over 37 years of joyfully treating our veterans. I am now connected with several Veterans organizations: a major goal is to get sponsorship for HR 914 NOW to provide better total healthcare for our Veterans. Please ~if you are reading this: contact your representative in the House in DC, ask for the Legislative Aide and direct them – do not request them! – to cosponsor HR 914 NOW. And tell your family and friends out of state to do the same. Why do we have to wait for more veterans to be buried due to poor medical care to take action?
    Thanks for your support of our Veterans.

  8. Art Ellingsen April 26, 2021 at 9:48 pm

    I am a Vietnam Veteran. I get free medical care from the VA, but not free dental care.

    I haven’t had nor have I been able to afford dental insurance for many years.

    Typically a bunch of dentists, once a year, offer free dental care, such as cleaning and sometimes including fixing one problem, on Veterans Day. That has been the only routine Dental Care I have been getting in the past 20 years.

    In the past five years, two of these Dentists who offered to clean my teeth for free have noticed that I needed a crown on two different teeth. One provided a free crown, but I had to pay for a root canal first, out of pocket. The Second provided an almost free crown charging me only for materials about $150.00 if I recall correctly. Two different church related Charity groups paid that bill for me.

    Therefore, it is very important that the VA should provide Dental Care just like they provide Medical Care for low income Veterans, such as myself.

    Fifty years ago when on Active Duty in the Navy I had damage caused to my teeth which was exacerbated by a boot camp company commander who refused to let me see a Dentist when I felt pain in my teeth. To date, more than 50 year later, the VA has refused to fix my teeth as the boot camp Dentist told me they would.

    The problem is, according to the VA, that my Dental Records from boot camp have been lost.

    I was at boot camp during 1970 and the VA has not yet fixed my teeth.

  9. Joe Bazil April 26, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    To try and get HR 914 passed we need the help of ALL Veterans to lobby their Congrerssional Reps and Senators to get this bill passed. Without the support of more co-sponsors (especially need more Republican co-sponsors) this bill will just fade away.

  10. Bruce Parry April 26, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    Dental Care is a central part of health care. It is connected to many types of seemingly non-dental issues, including heart disease. It is crucial that the VA begin providing dental care too ALL veterans. HR 914 will make this the law. We need to support that bill and continue the struggle to get dental care recognized as the health issue it is.

  11. Russell G. Hopkins April 25, 2021 at 5:47 pm

    I am a veteran from the Vietnam Era. A number of years ago I my heart was attacked by an infection that required ten days of hospitalization at Bellin Hospital in Green Bay where I was taken by ambulance from the Emergency Room in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin about 50 miles away.

    It took awhile to determine that the oral infection was seriously damaging my heart and a dentist was called in on a Sunday morning to extract all of my remaining teeth. If that had not been done, I would have died.

    The total bill for the extraction was over $6,000. Neither Medicare or the VA covered this life threatening incident and I had to pay the invoice myself. Fortunately, due to the compassionate dentist, I was offered a discount on the bill.

    Surely there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of veterans who have encountered similar situations and have endured great pain and suffering or even death from a lack of dental care. It is sad and a disgrace that our older veterans with very limited financial resources must confront such a life or death dilemma.tely

    Unfortunately, many of our legislators take the position that the United States of American cannot afford to provide those who have served their country with adequate dental care even when failing to do so can result in either severe pain and suffering or death.

    Russ Hopkins
    Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

  12. Rochelle Crump April 22, 2021 at 9:02 pm

    The VA Health Care System is publicly acknowledging that you are aware that Dental Care check ups twice a year is crucial to screening for Oral Cancer. With that in mind when will the VA implement the dental screening so that veterans can live longer?

    When you know something is wrong medically, you have an obligation to fix it. Dental care check up is just like Mammograms, you get screened annually to ensure you can get the help you need if there are changes in your body, so that you can live longer.

    If the VA Health Care systems continue to refuse and deny veterans the right to full comprehensive care with dental care SHAME ON YOU! Veterans may be dying because of you!

    I support HB914!

  13. John Byrne April 22, 2021 at 10:41 am

    I am not a Doctor but with today’s technology, “I CAN READ”! Without going into a dissertation;
     You can die from oral infection!
     “Oral infection” causes, Systemic Diseases!”
     It’s time for all, “Veterans and all Americans” to get involved and demand immediate change in the medical practice; your lives depend on it!

    Purportedly, according to most medical Journals there are certain practices followed in the medical profession! The steps of the diagnostic process fall into three broad categories: Initial diagnostic Assessment – Patient History – , Physical exam, evaluation of the patients’ complaint and symptoms forming a differential diagnosis.

    FACT
    The Mouth; is undoubtedly the dirtiest part of your body with the largest amount of bacteria. The MOUTH comes in more contact with germs than the rectal area.

    “Oral infection” causes, Systemic Diseases; e.g.; —- If not common sense, then prudence dictates; if the septic tank leaks into the well, you correct the problem at the septic first!

    The theory of focal infection was promulgated as early as the 19th century.
    (Focal Infection; is an infection in which bacteria are localized in some region, as the tonsils or the tissue around a tooth, from which they may spread to some other organ or structure of the body.)
    Despite the purported lack of scientific evidence, “Numerous Scientific Studies, link Oral Health to Systemic Disease,” which presents a very high probability of accuracy of the subject matter!

    (Systemic means affecting the entire body, rather than a single organ or body part. For example, systemic disorders, such as high blood pressure, or systemic diseases, such as the flu, affect the entire body. An infection in the bloodstream is called a systemic infection.)

    Prudence, if not common sense, dictates; any oral infections ; “need to be corrected first,” and, certainly “NEED TO BE CONSIDERED IN FORMULATING DIAGNOSIS,” ESPECIALLY, prior to any surgery!
    “MY OPINION”: Failure to recognize and/or correlate, “dental infection,” in making any diagnosis on related symptoms; makes it impossible to achieve an accurate diagnosis rendering everything else that follows useless or inaccurate! ——– It should be considered gross negligence!

    My personal opinion interjected; Prudence, if not common sense, dictates; the intestinal tract should be evacuated a at least 1 day prior to surgery and prior to taking medications!

    How can anyone in the medical field expect make an intelligent informed diagnosis when ignoring and failing to correlate, dental infections!

    FACT; SYSTEMIC DISEASES ASSOCIATED WITH ORAL INFECTION TO NAME A FEW;
    o Cardiovascular Disease
    o Coronary heart disease: atherosclerosis and myocardial infarction
    o Stroke
    o Infective Endocarditis
    o Bacterial Pneumonia
    o Lo Diabetes Mellitus
    o w Birth Weight

    Reference:
    1. Aldridge J P, Lester V, Watts T L, Collins A, Viberti G, Wilson R F. Single-blind studies of the effects of improved periodontal health on metabolic control in type 1 diabetes mellitus. J Clin Periodontol. 1995;22:271–275. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
    2. Reference deleted.
    3. Asikainen S, Alaluusua S. Bacteriology of dental infections. Eur Heart J. 1993;14:43–50. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
    4. Baltch A L, Pressman H L, Schaffer C, Smith R P, Hammer M C, Shayegani M, Michelsen P. Bacteremia in patients undergoing prophylaxis as recommended by the American Heart Association, 1977. Arch Intern Med. 1988;148:1084–1088. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
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    6. Beighton D, Life J S. Trypsin-like, chymotrypsin-like and glycylprolyl dipeptidase activities in gingival crevicular fluid from human periodontal sites with gingivitis. Arch Oral Biol. 1989;34:843–846. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
    7. Beighton D, Radford J R, Naylor M N. Protease activity in gingival crevicular fluid from discrete periodontal sites in humans with periodontitis or gingivitis. Arch Oral Biol. 1990;35:329–335. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
    8. Bonten M J, Gaillard C A, van Tiel F H, Smeets H G, van der Geest S, Stobberingh E E. The stomach is not a source for colonization of the upper respiratory tract and pneumonia in ICU patients. Chest. 1994;105:878–884. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
    9. Boon N A, Fox K A A. Disease of the cardiovascular system. In: Edwards C R W, Bouchier I A D, Haslett C, Chilvers E R, editors. Davidson’s principles and practice of medicine. 17th ed. New York, N.Y: Churchill Livingstone; 1995. pp. 191–312. [Google Scholar]
    10. Breslau N, Brown G G, DelDotto J E, Kumar S, Ezhuthachan S, Andreski P, Hufnagle K G. Psychiatric sequelae of low birth weight at 6 years of age. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 1996;24:385–400. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
    11. Byrne J, Ellsworth C, Bowering E, Vincer M. Language development in low birth weight infants: the first two years of life. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 1993;14:21–27. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

    Plus,147 total reference 158; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC88948/ ;

    J BYRNE

  14. Robert Rees April 21, 2021 at 7:37 pm

    The VA does not care about treating Vets with Oral Cancer. I am a Korean War Vet. I had Squameous Cell Carcinoma and lost my upper jaw and pallet (sp) in 2012. My surgery was done by an ENT outside of the VA. I had a feeding tube for almost a year, along with Radiation, Chemo and Hyperbaric treatments. Regular dental insurance (which I have) does not cover an “obturator” which was needed for me to eat and somewhat have a normal life without a feeding tube. Normal cost would be over $15,000 ! I had to have reconstructive surgery with implants that would hold the obtoruator up. Fought with Medicare and UHC and did win that on appeal that cover the reconstructive surgery, but they would not covered the cost for an obturator . I went to VA to asking if they would help. They did make an obturator for me. It took over a year to complete !! Never fitted right since they would not use the implants that I had, since they didn’t put those in. Fast forward 4 yrs later, one of my implants became infected and I had to have additional reconstructive surgery to remove one implant. I bless the Oral Surgeon who did that under his Residency Program. Problem now is that I needed a new obturator . I once again called the VA and they told me NO !!!! Since “all of this” didn’t happen while I was in the service. Bottom line….. I had to pay out of pocket over $10,000 for a new obtoruator. Sorry, this was is so long winded… A lot more happened in-between… BOTTOM LINE…. VA WILL NOT ALWAYS HELP THEIR VETS !!! They talk the talk, but bottom line ….. they really won’t do anything.

  15. Andrea Gutierrez April 21, 2021 at 4:20 am

    You are correct! I have dental insurance through my husband, otherwise I’d have to take out a bank loan for routine care. Poor dental health can lead to several illnesses.

  16. Jim A Garcia April 21, 2021 at 3:31 am

    IT’S DISSAPOINTING, it’s “the” point, we VETERANS across our nation, those willing to have given our last measure of devotion fell short. A never stated, some unknown reason as to why Veterans are not deserving of quality dental care. Even those Navy dental interns that work on young service members would welcome the practice at solving infections, filling cavities, root canals, solving gum issues, ceramic repairs, in-plants for career people.
    Heck I was lucky, I found a dentist that takes payments & oh, his interest rate charge will ensure my principle is slowly reduced,
    Somehow we Veterans have not cut it!!! To bad Vets can’t avail themselves of the Milwaukee VA dentists.
    Please, are there any legislators who served in our military serving in our Congress that will initiate a successful mission of ensuring our VA will provide dental care to all Veterans.
    Jim A. Garcia

    • Larry Nazimek April 21, 2021 at 7:03 pm

      H. R. 914 would require the VA to treat dental care like every other medical specialty. It will die in committee, unless we get more co-sponsors. Do whatever you can to get your congressman, and others, to co-sponsor this important legislation.

  17. Patrick Wayne Leeds April 21, 2021 at 2:21 am

    I agree with the statement about cost of dental care. I have needed dental care for years, but I still do. I can not get care from the VA, because I don’t meet the requirements. The requirements need to be changed so all veterans may receive dental care. I realize this would increase VA costs, but I don’t remember any dollar figures being put on veterans service. We served our country and now the country does not want to keep their side of the bargain ———— NOW THEY DON”T WANT TO SERVE THE VETERANS. If early detection is the key, than dental care provided by the VA.

  18. Rodney Badgett April 20, 2021 at 8:19 pm

    Mr. Schurman is correct. Dental is expensive and the VA only offers dental services if you are 100% disabled, in school or some type of emergency. I simply never understood this considering dental health being a factor in heart and even brain health! I can not afford to be seen by a dentist. Even getting a tooth pulled is more than a $100.00 per tooth and I have several that need to go! I’ve been very fortunate, using the VA health care system, and have never really had a complaint. However, dental care or the lack thereof is illogical and confusing

  19. Donald Chance April 20, 2021 at 7:30 pm

    I’m in a mess. I have only four teeth now and numerous cracked teeth at the gum-line. I’m scared. I had a lot of dentist work when I was in the Army and all the filling’s they gave me produced a ton of these problem’s. Before the Army I had braces, all my teeth, (except my wisdom teeth that I had removed) and my mouth was healthy. Now I can’t afford the dentist to extract the four remaining teeth and possible surgery to have the broken teeth removed to try and get dentures. I’m in a mess, and scared.

  20. Steven Ward April 20, 2021 at 6:04 pm

    Why doesn’t the VA offer full dental care for all veterans?

  21. Aaron M. Sawyer April 20, 2021 at 6:03 pm

    I have had a slightly sore throat for the last 4 days, the main thing I’m suffering from is hoarseness and difficulty talking without sounding like I’ve lost my voice completely. I’m 35 I am a smoker but I have not been smoking the last 4 days, I’m going to try to keep it going and completely put secrets to bed. But my real concern here after reading this is that something might be terribly wrong. When I wake up in the morning I have to drink something otherwise I cannot even speak once I drink fluids and take a throat lozenger it gets much better I am able to talk it does not hurt whatsoever I have not had any fevers or other pains just to sore throat and it’s really not even that sore but my voice seems to be gone and I’m not a rock and roll star so I know it’s not from yelling and screaming it just came on… I have been fully vaccinated for covid-19 for over 2 months having received the moderna vaccine. I have been coughing up phlegm about three times a day. I would show up directly to the emergency room at my VA but due to covid I don’t think this is considered an emergency so I don’t really know what to do. It takes months to get an appointment with my primary care and they do virtual appointments I live in Boston Massachusetts, any advice?

  22. Leslie A Lobdell April 20, 2021 at 5:55 pm

    If the VA claims to care about dental or related healthbossues (such as heart disease) is it planning on addressing this pervasive and dangerous problem?
    I had field dental work done, with errors, in Viet Nam, that resulted in issues that have been lifelong and at my my own expense.

  23. ronald lewis April 20, 2021 at 5:01 pm

    I have 11 rotten teeth in my mouth, the others are broken off at the gum line.

  24. Sherry sorsdal April 20, 2021 at 3:54 pm

    I don’t understand why the VA doesn’t have dental unless your disabled.

  25. Paul Scheel15 April 20, 2021 at 3:13 pm

    If so many are dying it’s the VA’s fault cutting 99.999% of Veterans from having dental care
    They have the dentist and the assistant and not being used that often were paying the dentist but no patients
    They were removing my teeth with plans for false teeth I have had less then 10 for almost 15 years when one breaks they remove it but not doing the dental plan they had so they pulled most and left me

  26. Michael Schurman April 20, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    Dental is expensive. The V.A. doesnt help cover that. Many of us can not afford needed dental care.

    • Joseph Sylvain April 20, 2021 at 3:44 pm

      Where is the pilot program for dental health care access from federal register 12/13/2019 Doc#2019-26901 this program was approved by congress and signed onto law by former president Donald Trump,have not seen anything about this?

      • Carl Ciancarelli April 27, 2021 at 2:15 pm

        Yes…..I myself also being a DAV from the 1970s also heard about that pilot program and access to at least some dental health work from the VA for veterans……disabled or not…
        What happened.? I am going to send my state rep. a letter as well…..and also contact my DAV office as well.
        This administration certainly seems hell bent of giving money away to people that are not even citizens of our great country,not to mention the billions we give to other countries for nothing!
        Its about time we were fully taken care of as well……!
        I urge all veterans to do the same! Speak up!

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