Failure to Diagnose Oral Cancer

failure to diagnose oral cancer xrayEach year, there are thousands of cases of oral cancer diagnosed. According to the American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates, there are over 50,000 new cases of oral cancer each year, and oral cancer is responsible for roughly 11,000 deaths each year. Oral cancer may occur in the tongue, tonsils, throat, gums, cheeks, or in other parts of the mouth.

A dentist’s failure to diagnose oral cancer that the dentist should have diagnosed is a breach of the standard of care and may support a patient’s dental malpractice claim if the patient suffered damages as a result. If another type of medical doctor failed to diagnose the cancer, this could potentially serve as a basis for a medical malpractice claim. If the patient dies as a result of the failure to diagnose cancer, this may serve as the basis for a wrongful death claim. This article is specifically about failure to detect cancer in the context of dentistry and dental malpractice.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer may present itself in a number of ways. Some of the more common signs of oral cancer may include any of the following symptoms:

  • Mouth sores that do not get better;
  • Persistent pain in the mouth;
  • Persistent soreness in the throat;
  • A white patch on the inside of the mouth;
  • A reddish or otherwise discoloration inside the mouth;
  • Loose teeth;
  • Swelling in the jaw;
  • A lump inside of the mouth or neck;
  • Thickening of the tissue in the mouth or cheeks; or
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing.

If you have experienced any of these symptoms and if you suspect your dentist failed to diagnose oral cancer, you should reach out to your trusted medical professional immediately. Oral cancer may be cured with early detection and treatment.

Causes of Oral Cancer

Although the cause of cancer is unknown, there are several factors that can increase a person’s chances of developing oral cancer. Some of the factors that may increase the risk of oral cancer include the following:

  • Tobacco use;
  • Heavy alcohol use;
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection;
  • Increased age; and
  • Sun exposure.

Consequences of Failure to Diagnose Oral Cancer

Standard dental examinations often involve some form of cancer screening. A dentist should pay careful attention to any signs of cancer in a patient during an examination. If a dentist fails to diagnose a patient’s oral cancer, the cancer often causes the patient more damage than if it had been detected early on. Below are some of the more common consequences when a dentist fails to timely diagnose or detect oral cancer.

Expensive Medical Bills

The cost of surgical treatments, radiation, and chemotherapy treatment can be very expensive. Often times, if the patient’s oral cancer is detected early, the patient will need less treatment than if the oral cancer is detected later. Therefore, a dentist’s failure to timely detect and diagnose oral cancer can lead to more expensive treatment.

Pain and Suffering

Treatment for oral cancer, like other forms of cancer, brings about horrific side effects, including difficulty swallowing, difficulty eating, tooth decay, fatigue, loss of hair, nausea, and vomiting. These terrible symptoms can interfere with one’s ability to live, to work, and to enjoy life. Therefore, if a patient is subjected to these extreme medical treatments and the resulting side effects because a dentist failed to timely diagnose oral cancer, the patient may be entitled to compensation for pain and suffering.

The Spreading of the Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, a person is more likely to survive oral cancer if the cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage. If the cancer is localized, meaning it has not spread beyond the organ where it started, the survival rate is much higher than if the cancer spreads to nearby structures or lymph nodes. Once the cancer spreads, the survival rate drastically decreases, and the treatment can become much more intense, painful, and life-altering.

Wrongful Death

Just as the name suggests, wrongful death is a death that should not have occurred but for somebody’s wrongful or negligent act or omission. When someone dies because of the negligent act or omission of a dentist, the deceased person’s family member may be able to bring a wrongful death claim on behalf of the deceased person’s estate. In the case of a dentist’s failure to diagnose cancer and a resulting death, the wrongful death claim would be based on dental malpractice.

How to Detect Oral Cancer

Typically, a dentist will perform an oral cancer screening every time a patient comes in for the check-in or a cleaning appointment. There are several steps a dentist may take to diagnose oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Screening

During an oral cancer screening, the dentist will typically look through the inside of the patient’s mouth to check for sores. The dentist will also look for discolorations, like white or red patches on the inside of the mouth. The dentist may also feel the tissues in the mouth, cheeks, and neck to check for lumps or other abnormalities.

Follow-Up Visit

If the dentist finds any abnormalities or signs of oral cancer, the next step would be a follow-up visit to see if the abnormality is still present. If the abnormality is still present, the dentist will check to see how it has changed and whether it has grown since the previous visit. Depending on the cancer’s progress, the dentist may want to perform a biopsy.


If the dentist identifies an abnormality and if that abnormality persists, the next step will likely be a biopsy. This involves a doctor removing a sample of cells from the abnormal growth or lesion and sending that sample to a laboratory for testing to determine whether cancerous cells are present. If the lab finds cancerous cells, the next step will likely be an evaluation of the cancer.


If oral cancer is diagnosed, the doctor will work to determine the extent of the cancer. This is sometimes referred to as the “stage” of the oral cancer. Stage 1 is cancer in a lower stage, which indicates that the cancer is smaller and is confined to a smaller area. Stage 4 oral cancer is cancer that is in a higher stage, which indicates that it is larger or has spread to other parts of the body. To evaluate the cancer, the doctor may perform an endoscopy procedure to view the inside of the throat. The doctor may also perform imaging tests, which may include x-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, or PET scans.

Treatment of Oral Cancer

The treatment of oral cancer can depend upon the stage of the cancer and how early the cancer was detected. If oral cancer is detected early, it can be treated with surgical procedures and radiation therapy. Oral cancer that has progressed to a higher stage may require a number of treatments. For example, chemotherapy may be used in conjunction with radiation therapy. Additionally, other forms of oral cancer treatment, like targeted therapy, may be available. Treatment will likely depend on a number of factors, including the patient’s age and health, as well as the cancer’s progress.