Device goes under the skin to detect oral cancer

SEATTLE -- Oral cancer, once mainly found in people over 40, is a growing threat for the younger generation. More people in their 20's and 30's are being diagnosed.

A simple test could catch it early, and you don't have to make a special trip to the doctor. Instead, oral cancer screenings can be folded into your twice yearly teeth cleanings.

Every patient getting a teeth cleaning from hygienist Cris Duval gets the quick screen. It's been habit since hygienist school when Duval found a cancerous lesion on her second practice patient. "That was a huge anchor for me to always do an oral cancer screening on every patient, every time," she said. "Because everybody that comes and sits in my chair has somebody that loves them."

Within seconds, Duval checks the tongue, tonsils, cheeks and roof of the mouth. While it's standard practice to look for lesions with the naked eye, this office has an added tool. It's called a VELscope. The device can detect cancerous tissue below the surface of the mouth. Normal tissue looks green under the scope.

"Any spot that doesn't look right looks black to us through that," said Dr. Brian McKay. "So we go, wow, I get a brighter light and more magnification and go okay, let's take a close look at that."

Dr. McKay was the first dentist in the country to regularly use the VELscope. That's a point of pride in an office dedicated to catching oral cancer early. "It's like a lifeline for my patients," Duval said. "It will save a life and reduce the amount of surgery and what they go through, if they do have cancer and it's found in its early stages."

Even without the scope, dentists and hygienists can screen for oral cancer at regular cleanings, giving patients a twice yearly check for a disease that can be disfiguring or deadly.

The human papillomavirus or HPV is the leading cause of oral cancer. The Centers for Disease Control lists HPV as the fourth biggest health threat of 2014.