B.C. researchers are investigating why an increasing amount of younger people are developing oral cancer.

Doctors speculate that viruses like human papillomavirus or HPV, which causes cervical cancer, may be boosting the rates of the potentially deadly cancer.

Dr. Calum Macaulay at the BC Cancer Agency said there’s an argument to be made that it’s linked to sexual transmission.

Sufferers Michael Douglas and Roger Ebert have helped spread the word of early detection.

However, four in 10 oral cancer patients will die within five years of being diagnosed.

At the BC Cancer Agency, technicians use a hand-held portable device called a VELScope to detect changes in the mouth that can’t be seen by the naked eye. 

Macaulay, who invented the fluorescent technology, says it can be used to determine which patients need more evaluations through scraping the oral cavity or biopsy.  The device allows dentists and hygienists to scan for abnormal tissue that may be cancerous.

“Ever been in a night club and your white shirt glows? It's the same concept,” he said.

It's estimated that 65 per cent of oral cancers go undiagnosed. That's because the tissue changes that lead to oral cancer actually start below the skin's surface, at the basal membrane. These changes may not be visible to the naked eye until the disease progresses to the surface.

Marci Eaton was just 30-years-old when she found a bump on her tongue.

“It was pretty much the same colour as the tongue, with a little bit of redness around the outside edge,” she said.

It was cancer. Eaton, who didn’t smoke or drink, had half of her tongue removed by surgeons within weeks of her diagnosis.

She is now 17 years cancer free, and credits the BC Cancer Agency with her survival.

“If you were going to get a cancer like this, you want to be in Vancouver where all the biggest and the best clinicians are,” she said.

More than 50 clinics across B.C. are participating in a community screening initiative. Click here to find one near you.

A fundraiser to help raise money and awareness for the BC Oral Cancer Prevention Program is being held April 24 at Terminal City Club. Click here for more information.