Is your dentist performing oral cancer screenings?

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Oral cancer diagnosis numbers are on the rise, so what can you do to protect yourself? ( file photo)

Nearly 48,000 Americans will be diagnosed with it this year. While it cannot be seen by the naked eye in most cases, it's something your dentist can detect with specialized instruments. We're talking about oral cancer. So why are diagnosis numbers on the rise, and what can you do to protect yourself?

Nathan Hart was only 27 when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 oral cancer. He documented his journey by posting a series of videos online.

April 6th, 2011 was his last video. He never did make it to his 30th birthday.

According to Dr. Terri Alani, "One person every hour in the U.S. dies from oral cancer."

Dr. Alani says there are numerous contributing factors that could lead to oral cancer.

"Any kind of excessive alcohol use. Tobacco use. But the interesting fact now, is the HPV virus has significantly caused an increase in oral cancers. It is the same kind of cancer that causes cervical cancer in women," Dr. Alani said.

The statistics are alarming. That's why early detection is paramount.

"With late detection, it has a 50 percent fatality rate. But if it's detected early it has a 90 percent survival rate so early detection is so important," Dr. Alani said.

It's what saved Susan Pansmith's life nearly nine years ago.

"I felt something a little unusual on the side of my tongue," Pansmith told us.

So she went to a specialist where a biopsy revealed that she had squamous cell cancer. Caught in its early stages, she survived.

"So that caused me to get involved with the Oral Cancer Foundation, so that I could get the word out," Pansmith said.

For those who do not catch it in time, Pansmith says it's a diagnosis that could really change your quality of life.

"Many of the people I know are disfigured. They lose the ability to kiss a loved one, to eat, to drink -- to do any of the things that we take for granted," Pansmith said.

Dr. Alani says it's difficult to detect with the naked eye. But the VELscope device allows her to spot any suspicious tissue that may require further investigation.

"If you're going to a dentist that's not using an oral cancer exam, then you need to ask about it. Because it's really important and we're here to save lives," Dr. Alani said.

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