Test for oral cancer aims to prevent aggressive surgery

06 April 2016

Toronto -

In January 2015, Sean O’Donoghue, 47, a father of 2 young children, went to the dentist complaining of a sore on his tongue. The dentist said it would likely heal by itself. But over the next few months, the sore did not heal and Sean started to have earaches that got worse over time. He made several visits to hospital emergency for treatment as well, but nothing seemed to help, despite various prescribed medications.

By June, Sean’s family doctor was concerned about the tongue sore and sent him to a specialist, who ordered a biopsy. The biopsy indicated an aggressive stage 4 cancer growing in Sean’s tongue. A few weeks later, Sean underwent a 14-hour operation to remove 90% of his tongue, which was replaced with tissue from his abdomen. Surgeons also found that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and jaw. Seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy followed.

Sean went home and dealt with many side effects of treatment as well as pain and trouble swallowing and speaking. “It’s strange not to recognize your own voice and especially sad when your kids don’t understand you,” he said.

Sean died in late March in Toronto, surrounded by family and friends. His funeral was on March 30. One of his dying wishes was to raise awareness about oral cancer and encourage others to support research so that no one else will suffer as he did. 

Sean was one of about 4,400 Canadians who were diagnosed with oral cancer last year. While 63% of patients diagnosed with oral cancer are expected to survive 5 years past their diagnosis, for many patients the cancer is not found early enough to be successfully treated. An effective test to detect oral cancer earlier is desperately needed.

With a $200,000 Innovation Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, Dr Marco Magalhaes is developing a new test to detect oral cancer early and determine which precancerous lesions will develop into cancer, to guide treatment decisions.

Like Sean, many people diagnosed with oral cancer (including cancers of the tongue, cheeks and gums) will undergo aggressive surgery (which can involve removing all or part of the tongue or jawbone and cutting into the neck), as well as radiation. These treatments often result in facial disfigurement and long-term difficulties with speaking and eating.

“Most patients with oral precancers don’t need extensive surgery, but currently we can’t tell which patients need it and which don’t,” says Dr Magalhaes, an oral pathologist at the University of Toronto’s faculty of dentistry and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. In this new study, he will test oral biopsies using fluorescent tags to “light up” abnormal proteins found in high-risk precancerous lesions that should be surgically removed.

“Our ability to detect oral cancers and the criteria to evaluate precancerous lesions in tissue samples has changed very little in 30 years,” says Dr Magalhaes. The current method of finding oral cancer or precancerous lesions is a visual inspection of the mouth and then examination of biopsies for abnormal cells. However, this method cannot accurately differentiate between precancerous lesions that will develop into cancer and need to be removed, and those that can be monitored safely without treatment.

“If my cancer had been found earlier, I might not have needed such extensive surgery,” said Sean. “Things could have gone significantly better for me.”

“Oral cancer can be a devastating disease, and early detection can greatly improve patients’ outcomes and quality of life,” says Dr Siân Bevan, director of research at the Canadian Cancer Society. “Thanks to the support of our donors, Dr Magalhaes’ research has the potential to make a concrete impact on how people with suspicious mouth lesions are managed.”

About the Great Canadian Innovation Grant

This grant has been named as the Canadian Cancer Society’s 2nd annual Great Canadian Innovation Grant. Starting on November 24, 2015, during the week leading up to GivingTuesday on December 1, 2015, Canada’s leading cancer charity inspired Canadians to join together and raise $200,000 to fund this grant – a high-risk, high-reward cancer research project.

“We launched this exciting campaign to engage Canadians directly in cancer research last year, and it was such a success that we did it again this year. We are delighted and overwhelmed with the support, and everyone who donated to make this grant possible can feel proud of the opportunity they are creating to fund more research,” says the Society’s Dr Bevan. “The Great Canadian Innovation Grant is a reflection of the strength we have when we come together from coast to coast to support Canadians affected by cancer.”

“I am so grateful to all the generous donors who are making this research project possible. There is a tremendous need to find better ways to detect and treat oral cancer. With the generous support of Canadians, we will be that much closer to making this a reality,” says Dr Magalhaes.

Signs and symptoms of oral cancer – when to see your dentist or doctor

When mouth cavity cancer is found and treated early, the chances of successful treatment are better. Get regular health checkups and see your dentist or doctor if you have:

  • white or red patches in the mouth or on the lip
  • a sore in the mouth or on the lip that doesn’t heal
  • a lump or thickened area in the mouth or on the lip
  • loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit
  • bleeding in the mouth
Some people have a higher-than-average risk of developing mouth cavity cancer. You may be at a higher risk if you:
  • smoke, use smokeless tobacco or both
  • drink alcohol, especially if you are a heavy drinker
  • have a precancerous condition of the mouth cavity

For more information, visit cancer.ca or call our toll-free bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1-888-939-3333 (TTY 1-866-786-3934).

More about Canadian Cancer Society Innovation Grants

As competition for grant funding increases, expert review panels become more conservative and risk averse, emphasizing feasibility over innovation. “The goal of the Innovation Grants program is to support unconventional concepts or approaches to address important problems in cancer,” says Dr Bevan. Innovation Grant projects will include elements of creativity, curiosity, investigation, exploration and opportunity. Successful projects may be based on high-risk ideas, but will have the potential for high reward. Learn more about Innovation Grants.


The Canadian Cancer Society funds the best cancer research in Canada thanks to our generous donors and our rigorous peer-review process. We are the largest national charitable funder of cancer research in Canada, funding hundreds of researchers in universities, hospitals and research centres. Make your gift today at cancer.ca.

For more information, please contact:

Brooke Kelly

Communications Coordinator

Canadian Cancer Society

National office

Phone: 416-934-5321