Society-funded research could mean earlier detection for oral cancer

06 April 2016

Toronto -

Sean’s story

In January 2015, Sean O’Donoghue, 47, sought treatment from his dentist after having trouble with a sore on his tongue and was told that it would likely heal by itself. Months later, the sore hadn’t healed, Sean was suffering from worsening earaches and medications prescribed to him weren’t working.

Months later, a specialist ordered a biopsy of the sore which indicated an aggressive stage 4 cancer growing in Sean’s tongue. A few weeks later, Sean underwent a 14-hour operation that removed 90% of his tongue and replaced it with tissue from his abdomen. During surgery, surgeons found that the cancer had also spread to his lymph nodes and jaw.

Sean is one of about 4,400 Canadians who were diagnosed with oral cancer last year. About 63% of oral cancer patients are expected to survive 5 years past their diagnosis, but for many their cancer is not found early enough to be successfully treated.

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.

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

Society-funded research could help guide treatment decisions

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

Many of those diagnosed with oral cancer 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 profound, 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 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.

The current method of finding oral cancer or precancerous lesions is a visual inspection of the mouth and then examining 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 safely be monitored without treatment.

“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.”

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

More signs and symptoms of oral cancer.

Some people have a higher than average risk of developing mouth cavity cancer. You may be at a higher risk if you:


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